The enigmatic Chavín culture of Peru

The enigmatic Chavín culture of Peru

For years, the story was told from the Castilian perspective. A story ordered from the metropolis to flatten the differences of pre-Hispanic America and the trend of its sources, forms and worldview. However, the growing academic interest in overcoming the biases of the past brought with it a renewed boom in knowing who the original inhabitants of the continent were. Among this group, the Chavín culture stands out for its importance and its magnificent development.

The Chavín culture is understood to be a human group that developed homogeneous archaeological manifestations during the Early Horizon period (1200 BC – 400 BC), located in what is currently central Peru. Its architectural remains were studied by the distinguished Peruvian researcher Julio C. Tello, who carried out investigations in the ruins of Chavín de Huántar, establishing that this site was the base of a civilization of great proportions.

Although the Chavín culture began its period of decline around the second century BC, its impressive advances in archeology, social organization, and its complex belief system are still studied. The great antiquity of the Chavín culture made Julio C. Tello consider it a kind of matrix civilization that inspired, influenced and enriched the mental horizon of later societies, perhaps even the Incas themselves. It is for all this, that in this article we review more information about them.

Origin of the Chavín Culture

At present, there are still discrepancies about the origin of the Chavín culture. Probably, this debate will never be resolved, because it is about an extinct civilization and that did not leave any written testimony of its passage through the world. It is observed then that they were a protohistoric people and without apparent ties with the rest of the human groups in the region.

However, the abundance of representations of jungle fauna in his sculptures, such as jaguars, led Julio C. Tello to attribute a origin located in the green depths of the Peruvian Amazon. From there, the individuals that would later form the Chavín culture would have migrated to the Andean Cordillera and the coastal areas.

Socio-political organization

The Chavín culture was organized in a way theocraticIn other words, the upper caste were the priest-astronomers in charge of supervising the sowing cycles and establishing permanent communication with the gods.

The enigmatic Chavín culture of Peru

This government of the priests was sustained and maintained by the great knowledge they had about the sky and the patterns of the stars, which allowed them to anticipate atmospheric variations and, in this way, benefit from them to obtain better agricultural yields. In addition, the priests were excellent agricultural engineers and preserved the liturgy of the worship rites.

Immediately below the priests were the members of the warrior nobility, charged with maintaining order in the regions dominated by the Chavín culture. Finally, there was the common town composed of peasants and ranchers.

Economic Characteristics

The Chavín were a town dedicated especially to the agriculture of corn and potatoes, although they also planted and consumed avocado and various types of beans. The agricultural techniques were the irrigation canal, the use of excrement for the fertilization of the cultivated lands and new tools for the plow. In addition, they also created wachaques, lots of land permanently flooded with water.

Thanks to these technical advances, the Chavín had significant agricultural surpluses, which were administered and controlled by the priests. In this sense, the priests had control of the means of production (irrigation canals and wachaques) and directed the forces of production (labor).

The Chavín culture also knew the livestock of the Andean camelids, especially the alpaca and the llamas. There was also handicraft production and goldsmithing, to deposit food and decorate rooms. They also carried out the fish trade with the coastal towns, although this was limited to tricks and never reached large proportions.

Cultural manifestations

The Chavín culture was rich in material and immaterial representations of its universe, although only part of the former survive to this day. Precisely, the study of these artistic forms allows us an approach to the imaginary of these ancient Americans. His art is the closest we can get to a vision of his world and its customs.

Chavín art is essentially naturalistic and abounds in representations of jungle fauna. It also has stylized anthropomorphic images, which in all probability represented deities. It was a very elaborate art, where precious metals and stones were used in profusion. Later these techniques would influence later pre-Hispanic Andean cultures.


The Chavín culture used gold and silver and copper alloys to make diadems, rings and other ostentatious items for the priestly class. They worked these metals with hammering, embossing and cutting. Using these techniques, they could create intricate patterns and figures.

The most renowned expression of the goldwork made by the Chavín culture is the Crown of the 14 faces, found in Kuntur Wasi. The crown in question was part of the grave goods of a priest and in it you can see many tiny faces carved in gold sheets.


The sculpture is made on granite stone, having a recognized religious sense. Stelae and monoliths of zoomorphic creatures abound. The so-called bald heads should also be highlighted. The function of this sculpture was to communicate the magnitude of the supernatural universe, of which the priests were the vicars among men.

The Chavín culture developed an important sculptural legacy, but the most studied work is the Lanzon Monolithic. This work measures almost 5 meters and is located in the ruins of Chavín de Huántar. It represents the superior god of the Chavín pantheon. The figure in question has jaguar teeth and claws, snake hair, and a human torso.


The pottery was monochrome and denoted a prodigious handling of clay. They also used tapeworms, a kind of shovels, to carve decorative figures on the vessels and patterns that played with the outline of the object. A very high distinction can be drawn between ceramic products of daily use and those that had a liturgical character, since the latter were more elaborate.


The Chavín were studied starting from the ruins of Huántar and they are still known mostly for their impressive works of monumental architecture. They made a large number of temples and places of worship, located in the middle of sunken squares and buildings like truncated pyramids. They didn’t use windows, but they did use ventilation ducts.

The most studied example of the architecture of the Chavín culture is the Chavín de Huántar Temple. This enclosure was built in two stages: the Old Temple (900-500 AC) and the New Temple (500-200 AC). The so-called Old Temple has a multitude of internal galleries carved into the stone projections, to position fires that illuminate the enclosure.

On the other hand, the New Temple is much larger and is preceded by the well-known Falcónidas gate, a monumental megalith consisting of two stone columns and a cantilevered slab over these two.

Keep reading about Mesopotamia.

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