Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Battles of Cerro Sechín Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Erica Hill

Do carvings in northern Peru reflect ancient warfare or an Andean ritual practiced to this day?

Since they were first uncovered almost 70 years ago, the gruesome monoliths of Cerro Sechín in northern Peru have puzzled archaeologists, who have attempted to tease meaning from the carvings of fierce warriors surrounded by severed heads streaming blood, eyeballs lined up in tidy rows, and neatly stacked piles of vertebrae.

Some have suggested bizarre interpretations, such as the notion that the 3,500-year-old site was a center of medical learning, where anatomical drawings of disembodied limbs and ruptured intestines were carved for study.

But Cerro Sechín also has its share of straightforward interpretations. The site may commemorate a great victory in warfare--the problem is that there are no battlefields or mass graves in Peru that can be directly associated with the conflict represented at Cerro Sechín. An alternate theory suggests that the early inhabitants of Cerro Sechín were raiding their neighbors. Unlike all-out war, small-scale conflict would leave only minimal archaeological evidence.

In 2001, I visited Cerro Sechín for the first time. Despite spending several years poring over images of the site and its monoliths, I was stunned by the monumental size of the four-walled complex. Some of the stones used to construct the walls are more than three feet wide, and one stands more than thirteen feet tall.

As other scholars have previously observed, many of the monoliths are paired. From the two stones representing banners that flank a double staircase to the two warriors facing in opposite directions along the back wall, most of the human figures and many of the monoliths depicting body parts appear in pairs on opposite sides of the complex. Was this an ancient Peruvian desire for symmetry, or was it something more?

Erica Hill is a research associate at the University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America