The Mysteries of Ancient Peru
By Brian Haughton
The landscape of Peru is a spectacular mix of wild mountain scenery, dense inaccessible forests and narrow coastal plain. The country has a rich archaeological heritage with a history stretching back almost 20,000 years, with intriguing and mysterious sites like the settlement and lines at Nazca, Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Sacsayhuamán and the sacred Lake Titicaca.
Peru is best known for the sun-worshipping Inca civilization, which became established in the region around A.D. 1200. Roughly contemporary with the Maya and the Aztecs, the Inca Empire, which included considerable parts of modern Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, was perhaps the strongest and certainly the largest in pre-Columbian America.
The hub of this vast empire was located at the modern city of Cuzco, 11,500 feet up in the Peruvian Andes. Cuzco means “navel,” and for the Incas it was a sacred place, the center of the Inca Empire and the center or navel of the world.
Cuzco and Lake Titicaca
According to one Inca legend, after seeing the desperate state of the world, Tayta Inti (“Father Sun”) sent his two children, a son and a daughter, to bring back order and peace. The children emerged from Lake Titicaca with a golden staff, and were told by their father to settle permanently wherever the staff should sink into the earth.
At a hill overlooking the valley of the present city of Cuzco, the staff sunk into the ground revealing the fertility of the soil. It was in this place that the brother and sister and their followers founded the Inca city of Cuzco. Ancient Cuzco was closely linked to the Sun, and at its center was the Coricancha (“golden enclosure”), the Inca’s most important temple, dedicated to the Sun God, Inti. This building, whose walls and floors were once covered with solid gold, probably functioned as an observatory for marking solstices, equinoxes, and eclipses, the accurate tracking of which was vital to the timing of Inca religious and secular activities.
It is believed that Cuzco was laid out in the form of a puma, a sacred animal to the Incas and one that symbolized their Empire. The belly of the puma was formed by Cuzco’s main plaza, the river Tullumayo was its spine, and the great head of this gigantic beast was formed by the 15th century fortress of Sacsahuaman. The fortress is an excellent example of Inca architecture, and consists of huge cut-stone blocks fitted together so tightly that mortar was not needed. Some of the blocks used at Sacsahuaman weigh a staggering 190 tons. It is still an impenetrable mystery how the Incas moved such boulders and how they were able to fit them together so precisely.
Lake Titicaca, from where the brother and sister emerged with the golden staff, is a sacred lake lying on the border between Peru and Bolivia. At over 12,500 feet up on a high plateau in the Andes, Titicaca is the highest commercially-navigable lake in the world. It covers 3200 square miles and has an average depth of 350 feet.
Inca legend tells that in the remote past when terrible floods were ravaging the earth and mankind was nearly annihilated, the creator god Viracocha arose from the depths of Titicaca and travelled across the lake to the Isla de la Luna (the island of the moon), the Isla del Sol (the island of the sun) and the island of Amantani. Viracocha ordered the sun (Inti), the moon (Mama-Kilya) and the stars to rise. He then created a new man and a new woman, Mallku Kapac and Mama Ocllo from stones, and sent them out to repopulate the world.
Local legends speak of a lost city called Wanaku beneath the waters of Lake Titicaca, and in 2000 a fascinating discovery was made by an Italian team of archaeologists and divers called Akakor Geographical Exploring. Submerged in the depths of the lake the expedition found evidence for pre-Columbian constructions in the form of a huge temple, 660 feet long and 130 feet wide, traces of a paved road, a 2300 foot-long retaining wall, a terrace for crops and ceramic artefacts.
Although the Bolivian government has agreed to provide financial backing for further study of these intriguing underwater ruins, locals are frightened that the investigations into the sacred lake are disrespectful and will bring bad luck to the communities living in the vicinity.
Situated almost 8,000 feet up on a mountain ridge, the spectacular Inca ruins of Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”) mysteriously abandoned by the Incas in the 1530s, represent the archetypal lost city. This splendidly-located site lay forgotten for hundreds of years before its discovery in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, and is now perhaps the most easily recognizable ancient monument in South America.
The current opinion of scholars is that Machu Picchu was probably a religious retreat and royal estate rather than a conventional city as we understand it today. The complex of houses, palaces, temples, observatories and storage structures was constructed between A.D. 1460 and 1470 by Inca ruler and founding father of the Inca Empire Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, and was inhabited up until just before the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532.
One of the most impressive characteristics of Machu Picchu is its polished dry-stone walls, constructed using massive blocks of granite, finely cut using bronze or stone tools and fitted perfectly together. The Incas worked these blocks with stone and sand into irregular shapes that can have as many as thirty sides, and join together like a huge jigsaw puzzle. The blocks fit together so tightly that even the thinnest knife blade cannot be inserted between the interlocking stones.
A particularly intriguing and enigmatic structure at Machu Picchu is known as the intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”), which is thought to have functioned as a solar observatory. The intihuatana consists of a column of granite, possibly the gnomon or pointer of a sun dial, rising up from a large pyramidal table-stone. At each winter solstice, during the Festival of Inti Raymii (Festival of the Sun), a ceremony would be held at the intihuatana where the god would be symbolically secured to the stone by an Inca priest in an attempt to prevent the complete disappearance of the sun.
The Incas are not the only inhabitants of Peru to have left their mark on the landscape. Hundreds of years earlier a mysterious civilization living in the arid Nascan Desert carved out a vast series of lines and pictures which remain enigmatic to this day.
The Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines are one of the world’s best known and most controversial mysteries. The giant geoglyphs, covering an area roughly 37 miles in length and a mile wide, are etched onto the surface of the Nazca desert between the towns of Nazca and Palpa in southern Peru. There are over 300 glyphs, ranging from straight lines, to flowers, plants stylized hummingbirds, monkeys, lizards, spiders and human figures.
The question of how the Lines were made is actually no great mystery. The iron oxide coated stones that litter the surface of the desert were removed to reveal the underlying lighter-colored soil. In this way, the lines were drawn as a groove of lighter color contrasting with the darker red of the surrounding desert.
The function of these enigmatic inscriptions and who was responsible for their construction are hotly debated issues. Proposed theories to explain the lines include that they functioned as an astronomical observatory, as ritual pathways, a calendar, a map showing underground water supplies, or even as landing strips for alien spaceships. The most widely accepted explanation as to who made the lines credits the Nazca culture (300 B.C. to A.D. 800) with their design and construction using basic tools and surveying equipment.
The vast ceremonial city of the Nazcans, Cahuachi, overlooks the Lines. The focus of the city of Cahuachi was a central 100 foot-high pyramid, there were also extensive plazas and terraces, and over 5000 tombs, most of which have been looted. The city was a center for pilgrimage, and its population increased rapidly during major ceremonial events, many involving the Nazca Lines.
Archaeologists have used designs on Nazcan pottery, which include depictions of hummingbirds, whales, reptiles and monkeys, illustrated in a strikingly similar way to those on the Nazca plain, to attribute the lines in the desert to the Nazca culture.
Why the Nazca Lines were created is more of a mystery. Because the lines can only be appreciated from the air many researchers believe they were designed to be seen by the sky gods of the Nazcans. Indeed a ritual explanation for the lines is accepted by the vast majority of scholars, though the general term ‘ritual’ does not really bring us any closer to understanding exactly how the glyphs were used.
One particularly fascinating theory has been put forward by English explorer and researcher Tony Morrison, who has done extensive research into the old folk ways of the people of the Andes Mountains. Through this research Morrison discovered that the barren Nazca desert is even now an area given over by the local people for contact with their ancestors. Shamans, mediators between the tribal community and the spirit world, are present in most Native American cultures, and it is the Shaman who would probably have made use of the Lines to communicate with the ancestors.
Perhaps then, many if not all of the Nazca Lines were used as ‘spirit paths’ by tribal Shamans who would have walked in a trance along the glyphs on ‘voyages of the soul’ disappearing into the realm of the ancestors. Perhaps they made these spiritual journeys to utilize the peculiar energy of the particular glyph they were walking along, to bring much-needed rainfall or for some other benefit to their tribe.
According to this theory, the Nazca Lines in effect functioned as maps of the spiritual landscape, or the landscape of the ancestors, though this does not mean that the way in which the glyphs were used and perceived was always the same over the 1200 or more years they have been in existence. In that sense, the great expanse of geoglyphs littering the Nazca Desert remain an enigma.
Brian Haughton is a trained archaeologist, researcher and writer born in Birmingham in the U.K, currently based in Greece. He is the author of “Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries,” published by New Page Books. He is also webmaster of: www.mysteriouspeople.com , dealing with the lives of enigmatic and unusual people in history.
Return to the July/August Index page