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Letter from Peru: Andean Odyssey Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Richard L. Burger

Scouring the mountains of northern Peru for the source of the remarkable Yauya stela

[image]The first fragment of the Yauya stela was found in 1919. Today, it is embedded in the wall of a school. (Courtesy Richard L. Burger) [LARGER IMAGE]

In July 1974, I set off on a journey to Yauya, a village high in the Peruvian Andes. In archaeological circles, this small town is well known because of Julio Tello's 1919 discovery there of a large stela from the Chavín culture (900-200 B.C.), Peru's earliest civilization. As a graduate student in search of a doctoral dissertation topic, I was convinced that a sculpture of such fine quality and large size had to come from a major Chavín center in the area. A study of this center could shed light on the origins of Andean civilization during the first millennium B.C.


When I first decided to go to Yauya, the village was no more to me than a point on a map. I was blissfully unaware that less than two years earlier it had been the scene of an uprising by Quechua-speaking peasant farmers against the local landowners. This incident resulted in the decapitation of one of the town's distinguished citizens, the capture and torture of several others, the occupation of the town by insurgents, and, eventually, the intervention of government troops whose actions resulted in the death of numerous farmers (estimates vary between five and 20, depending on whom one asks). Whatever the reason for the uprising, the atmosphere in Yauya when I arrived there in 1974 was less than welcoming. Not surprisingly, people there were hesitant to provide food and lodging. Given the absence of hotels or restaurants, daily survival proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Ultimately, it remained hard to imagine conducting a long-term project there. Moreover, my explorations, including surface reconnaissance at the Tambo site, from which some local people believed the Yauya stela had been brought, failed to reveal evidence of Chavín architecture or cultural materials.

Most of the Yauya stela, with the exception of the two light-shaded areas, has been recovered. It depicts typical Chavín motifs, including a cayman or crocodile with tail feathers. (Dumbarton Oaks) [LARGER IMAGE]

After a few days, I left Yauya resigned to the fact that it was impossible to carry out my dissertation research there and that despite considerable effort and risk, I had made little progress in clarifying the significance of the stela. Happy to depart Yauya with my head still attached, I decided instead to carry out my doctoral work at Chavín de Huántar, the site of a large temple complex and town, both dating to the first millennium B.C., but I never lost my curiosity about where the stela had come from and why a big piece of it ended up in Yauya.

For the next two decades, questions concerning the Yauya stela continued to bother me and so I decided to return to Yauya in August 2001. Fortunately, my second trip was blessed with much more success than the first. I located the second fragment of the stela at long last and developed a plausible explanation of where the sculpture had originally been displayed. However, only more intensive fieldwork including excavations at the high-altitude site of Quellcayrumi will be able to resolve the questions raised by the remarkable and enigmatic Yauya stela.

The most recently found fragment of the stela had been in an abandoned Yauya home in a room infested with bees. (Courtesy Richard L. Burger) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

During my last visit, the people in Yauya were talking about setting up a local museum, and a building in the center of town had already been selected. Obviously, the reassembled Yauya stela would be the high point of such an institution. I remain intrigued with the enigma of the Yauya stela and hope some day in the not-too-distant future to return to Quellcayrumi to test my scenario with excavations at the site.

Richard L. Burger is director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at Yale University.

Further Reading
   For a general overview of the Chavín civilization and its antecedents, see R. Burger's Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992). P. Roe's A Further Exploration of the Rowe Chavín Seriation and Its Implications for North Central Coast Chronology (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1974) presents a compendium and interpretation of Chavín iconography, including the Yauya Stela. Chavín: Cultura Matriz de la Civilización Andina (Lima: UNMSM, 1960) by J. C. Tello offers a synthesis of this pioneering scholar's discoveries on early Peruvian civilization, including his explorations in Yauya.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America