Peru’s Temple of Doom

Hey there every peoples!

If you’re like me, you grew up with one of the greatest film sagas of all time: Indiana Jones. I mean, who doesn’t know who he is? The rough and tumble archaeologist has spawned 4 movies, a terrible tv show, comics, and theme park attractions. Granted loads of people didn’t like the newest installment, but being an Indy fan, I’ll take what I can get (queue trolls to come swarming in and ravaging me for… gasp… enjoying Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). My favorite was even against the main stream: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I guess people didn’t like the idea:  an ancient cult worshiping a god of death with human sacrifice. But such an idea is pure fantasy. Right?

In the highlands of Peru, near the town of Chavin, lie the ruins of an enigmatic temple. It is dotted with plazas and criss-crossed with water canals. Its walls are decorated with bizarre reliefs. One wall is lined with psychotic half-human effigies. It houses an underground labyrinth with no evidence that fire was used to light it. And most bizarre of all, this site has no fortifications. There are no signs of defensive walls. No signs of a barracks. No weapons or other material signs of a military have been found. What was this place? And how did it survive 800 years without martial might?

This temple complex is known as Chavin de Huantar. This ritual site was the center of a culture known as the Chavin, after the town where the first ruins (the temple) were found. The Chavin culture flourished from 1000 BC to 200 BC. The culture extended across the north and central coasts of Peru. The mystery began in 1919 when the first great Peruvian archaeologist, Julio C. Tello, discovered a circular plaza with an exquisitely carved granite obelisk in its center. Known as the Tello Obelisk, it depicts plants and animals such as snakes, a jaguar, chile peppers, peanuts, and manioc, with a caiman (a South American cousin of alligators) as the central figure. Future excavations revealed that this plaza was at the heart of a ceremonial complex. The Tello Obelisk proved frustrating. It was clearly given a place of high importance, making its ritual significance very obvious. Why would people worship plants and animals who live hundreds of miles away in the lowland rainforests? There are two competing theories. One is that people migrated up from the Amazon basin and created Chavin. A competing theory says that it was ideas, not people, who migrated. The plants and animals would have so impressed a people who had never seen them that they would have revered them. The debate remains unresolved.

A view of the main plaza where the Tello Obelisk once stood

But this is just the beginning. As the site was expanded archaeologists found that something a little more sinister was going on at Chavin. The temple walls are decorated with artwork that looks like it was spawned from Dr. Seuss’ worst nightmare. One prominent relief features a man with long claws and fangs clutching a cactus. Another wall was lined with stone heads featuring snarling visages of fanged men with mucus streaming out of their noses. They look more like the product of an acid trip than religious artwork. But artifacts as well as the artwork itself from the site provide clues. Bird bone snuff tubes, some beautifully carved, have been found all over the site. Snuff tubes have been used by various cultures to ingest drugs, particularly hallucinogens. That could explain why the stone heads have mucus pouring out their nostrils: when something is huffed up through the nose, the body will often attempt to flush it out with mucus to prevent harm. And the cactus in the relief? Studies have found that it is a san pedro cactus, a plant known to be hallucinogenic. Other hallucinogenic plants, like seeds of the yopo and the resin of the verolla tree, were also used. But why? Again, look to the artwork. They depict figures as half human, half animal. Ancient art is full of such figures, like centaurs, sphinxes, and mermaids to name a few. How do we know these people weren’t simply being artistic? Ancient cultures have always sought ways to commune and connect with the supernatural. The most common method to do that was by ingesting plants believed to have magical properties (but in reality they just made you trip balls). These images depict a transition into the divine world, a journey into realm of the gods. But Chavin has one more surprise in store. It is far more than simply going on a vision quest. Chavin hosted a ritual that brought the divine world to ours and would bring people face to face with a god itself.

The only stone head still left in place on the temple wall (from flickr user Dick Dangerous)

Canals winding through the heart of the complex channeled water from a nearby river. When water flowed through these canals, the sound would reverberate off the temple walls, creating haunting and eerie sound effects. And beneath these canals was an underground network of tunnels. The tunnels are pitch black and yet there is no evidence that fire was ever used to light it. How were they able to see in total darkness? One effect of the san pedro cactus is dilated pupils; the more dilated your pupils, the more light they can collect. So the practitioners of this ritual were able to see in the dark, but they were also under the effects of a hallucinogen. After a disorienting trek through these underground tunnels, the practitioners would come face to face with the supreme deity of Chavin: El Lanzon.

El Lanzon, the Supreme Deity of Chavin (from Picasaweb user Jose)

So called because of its shape (the moniker is Spanish for “The Lance”), El Lanzon is a god like no other. It has snakes in its hair, long claws, a headdress made of the heads of vicious reptiles, and its fanged lips are curled back in a perpetual snarl. El Lanzon sits in a small chamber illuminated by a single beam of light from a narrow shaft. And in this chamber, the water rushing through the canals above would have sounded like thunder. This was no accident. This is why El Lanzon was so feared and revered: the god was speaking to them. This stormy sound that they were hearing was their god reaching out to them. It is difficult to imagine what the initiates were going through. They were given a drug that made them hyper aware to their surroundings. Then they were led down a maze of darks tunnels only to be brought face to face with a very psychotic looking god who seemed to be speaking to them.

And with that said it becomes clear why Chavin had no military and no fortifications: it was sacred ground. The priests of Chavin were the heads of a cult that ruled through the power of its ideas. The priests wowed people with elaborate rituals as well as using mind altering substances to brainwash initiates. After all, who would attack the home of a living god? This system must have worked since the cult was in power for 800 years. But it wasn’t to last forever. About 200 BC the cult had dissolved. We still haven’t figured out why yet. Perhaps an outside body over came them. Or maybe when the priests couldn’t make good on their promises their followers became disillusioned and revolted.

With a repertoire like that, it is easy to see why this place is often referred to as the real Temple of Doom (hell, even I did). But it differs greatly from the film’s cult in one significant way: no human sacrifice was performed at Chavin. If that were the definition of a “Temple of Doom”, then a much more deserving site is Huaca cao Viejo, a ceremonial monument built by the Moche, a people who ruled the north coast of Peru 300 years after the fall of the Cult of Chavin. The main building, known as El Brujo, was the site of grizzly rituals. The entrance to the temple is decorated with the grim visage of a god clutching a severed head. The plaza was lined with a frieze depicting prisoners, bound and defeated being lead to an executioner. Over 1500 years ago, priests would sacrifice prisoners of war by slitting their throats and collecting their blood that the priests would later drink. If ever there was a Temple of Doom like the movie, you couldn’t do much better than El Brujo. But I think the reason the Cult of Chavin is given the title is because of how it psychologically manipulated its congregants, using elaborate art and rituals to make them believe that the priests could commune and even transport them to the world of the gods. It is certainly a potent reminder of the power of belief. Today archaeologists are still excavating Chavin de Huantar and all that was under its spell. With every new artifact uncovered we learn a little more about this real life Temple of Doom.

Till next time!

Huaca cao Viejo

4 thoughts on “Peru’s Temple of Doom

  1. Hi
    I came upon your site after reading HughThompson’s Cocineal Red. What would I need to do to see the Lanzon for myself. Is it possible? Are there guides? Do I need to make reservations?

    Thanks for your web site


    • That is a very good question. The time that the documentary that i got a lot of my info from was made it was an active archaeological site. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Archaeological tourism is very big in Peru, try contacting their Bureau of Tourism to find out more.

  2. Pingback: History Banter | Six Things that Show American Indians were Bros

  3. Pingback: Tripping on San Pedro in Peru - Expat Chronicles

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