The Civilizations of the Andes

Figure 10.1: Map of Peru', with the sites cited in the text

building today called Castillo, was built as a place for oracular pilgrimage, apparently similar to those of the classic world, and used for many centuries (Rick 2007). In the inner part of the temple, which has a cross-like plan, there is a thing generally known as the "oracle" It is a large monolith in the shape of a knife with a scary face carved on it, placed at the end of a subterranean corridor. A series of ducts and pipelines apparently generated sounds and adequate atmospheres to make even more believable the oracle's "opinions," as the oracle could talk by the means of a priest through a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Chavin was more a center of political-religious influence than a true headquarters of the central power. Later on, however, starting from the third century BC, great civilizations developed with specific characteristics and true capital cities: in the south, the Nascas, which we will talk about in Chapter 11; on the northern coast, the Moche; and in the regions near Lake Titicaca, the culture named after the monumental center of Tiahuanaco. The Moche's artists created wonderful and incredibly realistic portrait-vases, wonderful jewelry, and amazing monumental buildings such as the so-called

Figure 10.2: The Kalasasaya platform at Tiahuanaco

Huaca del Sol, a huge brick pyramid that today is partially destroyed. We know about the Moche, especially since the discovery, in 1987, of the famous royal tombs of Sipan, which "gave back" (as it is generally said, using an arguable verb) the funerary equipment of the chiefs, buried with golden masks and accompanied by sacrificed victims. The Tiahuanaco culture is instead known especially for the extraordinary engineering works that it created. Tiahuanaco was the biggest and most important city in the history of the Andes before Cusco, the capital of the Incas. Many coincidences unite it with Teotihuacan, in Mexico: both cities were abandoned for no apparent reason, and both were considered sacred places by the dominant ethnic group at the moment of the Spanish conquest (the Incas and the Aztecs, respectively).

The monumental center of the city (unfortunately partly rebuilt in an disputable way) is formed by two main elements: a megalithic fence that harbors a lower court, and a platform (Gasparini and Margolies 1997). The fence, called kalasasaya, of absolutely shocking dimensions, was constructed using gigantic stone slabs alternating with stone brick sections. It can be accessed via a stairway also made out of gigantic stone slabs with a monolithic statue in front of it. Next to the court lies the platform, gigantic as well, in the shape of a truncated pyramid. Obvious traces of megalithic architecture, both in the form of complex structures and single megaliths, are also scattered around everywhere, as the famous Gate of the Sun. It is a monumental door with various inscriptions of dubious interpretation; in its center there is the image of the Crying God, the main divinity in Tiahuanaco; the God's tears are associated with the rain, according to an iconography that will later percolate into the Incas' religion. It is very difficult to date the monumental complex of the city; usually the megalithic works are attributed to the third-sixth century AD, even though the issue is quite controversial, and some archaeologists attempted to push the dating back in time to the second millennium BC.

The last stage of the Andean civilization before the Incas includes the so called Huari-Tiahuanaco Empire (basically a follow-up of the Tiahuanaco culture under the domain of a warrior people, the Huaris, who adopted the Tiahuanaco style) and, on the coast, the Chimu civilization with Chan Chan as the capital, which is still almost perfectly preserved, with its wonderful mud-brick, finely decorated buildings.

It seems that astronomy played a very important role in all the Andean civilizations before the Incas, as recent and spectacular discoveries confirm, namely the astronomical alignments discovered in the Buena Vista site, dating from the year 2200 BC (Benfer 2007), and a recent study (Ghezzi and Ruggles 2007) that demonstrated that the enigmatic site of Chankillo (c. 300 BC), with its 13 towers laid out on the top of a hill, was definitely a sophisticated solar observatory. The Chankillo astronomers indeed followed the cycle of the sun through the year, framing the sun within the spaces between the various towers (the observatory still works, although it is not as precise as it once was).

Figure 10.3: The gate of the Sun, Tiahuanaco.

It is, instead, very difficult to draw conclusions regarding the possible presence of astronomy in the Tiahuanaco monuments, because the vast majority of the monoliths are not in their original position, as the site has been eagerly "restored." Unfortunately, however, the absurd arguments put forward by Arthur Posnanski (1945) are still believed today and are cited as staggering conclusions. Posnanski claimed that the kalasasaya could be dated, on the base of astronomy, as early as the Ice Age. Posnanski made one of the most standard and easily recognizable errors in archaeoastronomy: he found alignments to the solstices (and these alignments were probably true) but also found a relatively small error in them. Instead of concluding that the alignments were not exceedingly precise, he insisted that they were. Then, since solar alignments do not depend on precession, the unique solution was to check for the slow change of the obliquity of the ecliptic, which would have perfectly aligned the monument with the sun, but only some 13,500 years before its probable date of construction.

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