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The New World's Earliest Ceremonial Centers

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 305-347 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It takes a long performance and account to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth:

        The fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,
            measuring, fourfold staking,
        halving the cord, stretching the cord
                in the sky, on the earth,
    the four sides, the four corners, as it is said,
                by the Maker, Modeler,
        Mother-father of life, of humankind,
            giver of breath, giver of heart,
        bearer, upbringer in the light that lasts
of these born in the light, begotten in the light;
worrier, knower of everything, whatever there is:
                    sky-earth, lake-sea.

—Popul Vuh, trans. Dennis Tedlock, 63-64

Monumental Architecture in Peru and Bolivia

The New World's oldest monumental architecture began to appear in both coastal and highland areas of Peru during the Late Preceramic period at the same time Sumerians were erecting stepped ziggurats, Egyptians were building pyramids, and Chinese were constructing great ceremonial centers. What is astounding about the Peruvian achievement is that it took place prior to the manufacture of ceramics (about 2000 BCE ) and metal (about a millennium later). While coastal builders still relied on maritime resources they also practiced floodplain agriculture and traded marine products and salt for goods from the interior. Shortly thereafter large population centers with monumental architecture were appearing in the Supe and adjacent valleys of Pativilca and Fortaleza where only irrigated agriculture could account for the presence of squash, guavas, cotton, and other plants (corn, Zea mays, is conspicuous by its absence at most sites investigated so far, but may have been cultivated at Aspero). At the same time, however, these inland sites were also dependent upon marine resources for meat protein.

The rise of the coastal monumental ceremonial centers did not occur in a vacuum, however. The Nanchoc site, located in the Zaña Valley of northern Peru, features two stone-faced triangular mounds. Built during Middle Preceramic times, it was in use from about 5770 until 4000 to 3000 BCE , at which time one mound was capped with stone slabs. The site is interpreted as a center of the "ritually sanctioned" production of lime, a necessary ingredient for chewing coca leaves.

Two of the earliest coastal sites were Huaca de los Sacrificios at Aspero (2750 BCE ) and the neighboring one of Huaca de los Idolos (3001 BCE ). These were composed of multiple terraced platforms topped with square, rectangular, or trapezoidal structures. Different parts of the complex were linked by means of ramps, or either inset or projecting stairs. Constructed of stone and mud mortar, the platforms reveal evidence of reconstruction in which earlier rooms were filled with rubble to provide a surface suitable for building anew. Some sites feature circular sunken courts accessed by opposing wedge-shaped, inset staircases (a structure we shall examine more closely in time). Orientation of the mounds, even within a given site, was not necessarily consistent. The largest coastal center of El Paraíso covers approximately fifty-eight hectares. Two of the largest buildings, each over four hundred meters in length, face one another at opposite ends of a seven-hectare plaza. The plaza and a small four-tiered, rectangular platform (Unit 1) on the south edge have been excavated and restored. A major stair leads to a square, red-painted structure enclosing a sunken square pit with a burnt floor in the center and small circular pits containing carbon deposits at each corner. These sunken pits for burnt offerings, equipped with flues, are a feature that continued into the Initial period, and the practice of sacrificing to the gods in this manner persisted into historic times. Grinding stones covered with red pigment were the most common artifact found in Unit 1, and a dedicatory offering sealed in the northwest corner consisted of a large stone sprinkled with red pigment and covered with cotton cloth, a gourd of food, and a miniature version of the fiber bags used to haul rubble for filling in rooms during rebuilding phases.

Other glimpses into religious belief and rituals involving human sacrifice are afforded at early sites. At Huaca de los Idolos a cache of thirteen small, unbaked clay figurines (most appear to be female and four appear to be pregnant) were unearthed between two floors of a...



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