Chavin de Huantar

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Chavín, the first of the widespread, great art styles of the Andes. Chavín is named for the archaeological site of Chavín De Huántar in the northern Peruvian highlands, a temple complex that exhibits the greatest formal expression of this style. Its widespread distribution corresponds generally to the Early Horizon of the Andean chronological sequence (c. 1400–400 bce).

Around 1400 bce a religious movement began to spread across northern Peru that archaeologists term the cult of Chavín. It incorporated elements from older prehistoric Andean coastal religions represented by temples with sunken circular courts and later U-shaped temples, and combined them with elements from the tropical forests of the Amazon basin. Many of the images most commonly represented in Chavín art are wild animals found in the tropical jungle of the Amazonian lowlands. Prominent are the cayman, the jaguar, the serpent, and raptorial birds such as hawks or harpy eagles. Features of these animals, especially fangs and claws, are used even on nonanimal and human representations in Chavín art, probably as a sign of divinity. These features occur in a great variety of contexts even on a single image. Hair is represented as snakes, limbs end in feet with large raptorial bird claws or jaguar claws, junctions of the limbs with the trunk of the body are often shown as snarling, fanged feline or cayman mouths, as is the waist, or even the knees. Feathers may end in eyes, snakes' heads, or feline mouths. It has been suggested that the constant use of these features represents a system of visual metaphors. These are thought to be analogous to kenning, or comparison by substitution. The audience for Chavín art would have understood the references, so that, for example, as a result of an artist's consistently substituting snakes for hair in an image, snakes would eventually come to symbolize hair or represent the qualities of hair. It would also be possible to make kennings of well-known kennings and thus add more complexity to the images.

Chavín art conformed to a specific set of canons. In addition to the use of kennings, the principles of Chavín art include bilateral symmetry, reversible images, and double-profile heads. Bilateral symmetry was extensively used but was rarely perfect, for compositions often have at least one unsymmetrical element, typically a face looking to one side in the center. Many Chavín compositions also contain reversible imagery, whereby a work rotated side to side and/or inverted will still present a right-side-up image. This is usually achieved by clever and careful use of mouth and eye images in kennings on the major intersections of body parts, typically at the junction of the legs, arms, and head with the trunk of the figure. Double-profile heads are achieved through careful placement of two profile heads. Facing each other, the elements of the two heads can be visually combined and read as a single face.

By 1300–1200 bce temples and artworks associated with this cult had been built in the north highlands of Peru and on the Peruvian north coast. In the highlands, the temples were built of stone and decorated with low-relief carvings of Chavín deities and icons. The coastal temples were built of adobe and embellished with sculpted mud friezes that were painted in bright colors. By 1000 bce Chavín influence had appeared as far south as the area near the modern city of Lima. The cult continued to expand, and by 500 bce, Chavín influence extended from the modern cities of Cajamarca in the north to Ayacucho in the south. Enduring for centuries, the Chavín cult was enormously successful, but by about 400 bce it seems to have disappeared, as a number of new regional traditions asserted themselves.

See alsoArchaeology; Art: Pre-Columbian Art of South America; Incas, The; Moche; Paracas.


An excellent synthesis of archaeological research on Chavín can be found in Richard L. Burger, "Unity and Heterogeneity within the Chavín Horizon," in Peruvian Prehistory, edited by Richard W. Keatinge (1988), pp. 99-144. See also Richard L. Burger, The Prehistoric Occupation of Chavín de Huantar, Peru (1984). For a discussion of kenning in Chavín art, see John H. Rowe, "Form and Meaning in Chavín Art," in Peruvian Archaeology: Selected Readings, edited by John H. Rowe and Dorothy Menzel (1967), pp. 72-103. See also Peter G. Roe, A Further Exploration of the Rowe Chavín Seriation and Its Implication for North Central Coast Chronology (1974); and Richard L. Burger, Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Julio C. Tello, Chavín, cultura matriz de la civilización andina (1960).

Musée du Petit Palais (Paris, France). Peru: Art from the Chavín to the Incas. Milano: Skira, 2006.

                                    Gordon F. McEwan

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Chavín de Huántar

Chavín de Huántar, an archaeological site in the Mosna Valley in Peru's northern highlands. From 900 bce until 200 bce Chavín de Huántar was an important religious and economic center. At its height, it played a key role within a sphere of interaction that included cultures distributed nearly to the current Ecuadorian border on the north and to the highlands of Ayacucho and the coast of Ica in southern Peru.

In 1919 the pioneering Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello initiated investigations at Chavín de Huántar. Over the next three decades he argued that the developments there had provided the cultural matrix out of which later Andean civilization developed. More recent investigations have demonstrated that many of the distinguishing features of the site's art and monumental architecture had been based on earlier cultural traditions from the coast and highlands. Nevertheless, the distinctive blend of these older styles constitutes a major artistic accomplishment, and the Chavín style is considered by many to have been among the greatest artistic achievements of indigenous South America.

The public constructions consist of a series of pyramid-platforms arranged in a U-shaped ground plan. Their exteriors were faced in cut and polished masonry, and decorated with stone carvings of tropical forest animals like the jaguar, caiman, harpy eagle, and anaconda. The largest of these structures reached a height of 52.5 feet. They were catacombed with subterranean passageways and chambers, some of which were used for religious rituals. The principal cult object, a large granite sculpture of a fanged anthropomorphic figure (known as the Lanzón), can still be found in situ in the center of the oldest temple structures. While many of the religious rites were held on building summits and in the subterranean chambers, most of the ceremonial activities probably took place in the open-air, semisubterra-nean, rectangular and circular courts built at the foot of the platforms.

At the outset, a small residential population was associated with Chavín's ceremonial complex, but after 400 bce this settlement grew to a considerable size (104 acres, including the public architecture), and the population may have reached two thousand or more. Located at the intersection of two natural routes of communication, the center at Chavín de Huántar became an important focus of interregional trade and religious pilgrimage. While the local subsistence economy was based on a mixed agro-pastoral system of high-altitude crops (such as potatoes), maize, and llama herding, substantial amounts of exotic utilitarian items and ritual goods were acquired from distant sources. There is evidence of socioeconomic stratification at Chavín de Huántar by 300 bce, and it is likely that the center of Chavín de Huántar served as the focus of one of the first complex societies to develop in the Central Andes.

See alsoCupisnique Culture; Kotosh; Tello, Julio César.


A synthesis on the archaeology of Chavín de Huántar and its significance for Andean prehistory may be found in Richard L. Burger, Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization (1992). More detailed descriptions of excavations in the temple sector are provided in Julio C. Tello, Chavín: Cultura Matriz de la Civilización Andina (1960), and Luis Lumbreras, Chavín de Huántar en el Nacimiento de la Civilización Andina (1989). The best-known studies of the Chavín art style are John H. Rowe, Chavín Art: An Inquiry into Its Form and Meaning (1962), and Peter Roe, A Further Exploration of the Rowe Chavín Seriation and Its Implications for North Central Coast Chronology (1974).

Additional Bibliography

Burger, Richard L. Excavaciones en Chavín de Huántar. Peru: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Fondo Editorial, 1998.

Campana D., Cristóbal. El arte chavín: Análisis estructural de formas e imagines. Lima: Universidad Nacional Federico Villarreal, 1995.

Druc, Isabelle C. Ceramic Production and Distribution in the Chavín Sphere of Influence (North-central Andes). Oxford: J. and E. Hedges: Distributed by Hadrian Books, 1998.

Vaughn, Kevin, Dennis E. Ogburn, and Christina A, Conlee. Foundations of Power in the Prehispanic Andes. Arlington: American Anthropological Association, 2005.

                                      Richard L. Burger

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Chavín de Huántar (chävēn´ dā wän´tär), archaeological site in the northeastern highlands of Peru, near the headwaters of the Marañon River. It flourished between c.900 BC and 200 BC The site features two monumental temples and intricate stone carvings depicting snarling human deities and a variety of animals, including caimans, jaguars, snakes, birds of prey, and mythical beasts. The site also features residential architecture covering c.18.5 acres (7.5 hectares). The term "Chavín" (or "Chavinoid" ), used as an adjective, refers to the intricate art style present at this site, which eventually spread throughout much of central and N Peru. Once considered one of the earliest large-scale ceremonial centers of the central Andes, archaeologists now realize that monumental architecture actually emerged considerably earlier in other parts of Peru. The spread of the Chavín style in media such as metallurgy, textiles, and ceramics dates to the last phase at the site (c.400–200 BC), when Chavín de Huántar was undoubtedly the most prestigious religious and urban center in Peru.

See J. A. Mason, Ancient Civilizations of Peru (1961); J. H. Rowe, Chavín Art: An Inquiry into Its Form and Meaning (1962); E. P. Benson, ed., Dumbarton Oaks Conference on Chavín, 1968 (1971); C. Kano, Origins of the Chavín Culture (1979); R. L. Burger, Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization (1992).

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Chavín a civilization that flourished in Peru c.1000–200 bc, uniting a large part of the country's coastal region in a common culture. It is named after the town and temple complex of Chavín de Huantar in the northern highlands, where the civilization was centred.