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The origins of ritual warfare in ancient Peru


In northern Peru, a 2,400-year-old temple-fortress complex overlooks a small ridge topped by a series of towers that served as an astronomical observatory. How the complex was built and conquered is changing ideas about the origins of warfare. (Photo: Dan Grushkin)

On first impression, the temple-fortress complex of Chankillo seems like the result of bad ideas and an extreme surplus of free time. From the outside it appears to be defending nothing more important than a sandy hillside where northern Peru's Atacama Desert meets the Andes. The Casma River runs down the valley floor three-quarters of a mile away, giving life to a vein of green vegetation in the unrelenting beige of the desert. More than 2,000 years ago, the people living nearby left their villages to build three concentric walls totaling more than a mile in length, some of them 30 feet high and more than 20 feet thick, around a stone temple devoted to the sun. Any modern general would have been severely disappointed in Chankillo's fortifications. The difficulties of defending the place seem so great that some archaeologists have questioned whether it was a fortress at all.

The first problem is that despite being on a hill, Chankillo does not command the high ground. The hilltop is northwest of the fort, which would have allowed an invading army to rain sling stones onto defenders manning the fortress's outer walls with little fear of counterattack. Second, the fort has no source of water or place to store food during a siege. As if that isn't enough, the outer wall has five gates to defend, and the second and third walls each have four gates. Rather than putting these entrances in places where the terrain is steep or difficult to cross, they are located where it is easiest to walk or run up the hillside.

The temple at Chankillo was built sometime between 400 and 200 B.C., around the same time a religion that seemed to unify the region was starting to decline. The Chavín cult was first identified at the ancient city of Chavín de Huántar 75 miles east. The cult may have provided a politically stabilizing influence throughout much of northern Peru. As the religion lost its influence, however, localized groups began developing independent religions and probably political systems as well. "The collapse of Chavín...may have been followed by increased conflict," says Ivan Ghezzi, an archaeologist at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru. "Combat and weaponry were known before, but only at this time does conflict rise to the scale of true warfare." It was the beginning of the end of a time period Andean archaeologists call the Early Horizon. Very little is known about the people who built Chankillo. Not much archaeology has taken place outside the fortress, and the villages where the builders lived have not yet been discovered. But like many people from across northern Peru at this time, they began to feel threatened by neighboring groups and built hill forts. Those forts, however, are often located in places that would not have protected their crops or homes. Chankillo and other Early Horizon fortresses are raising questions about the use of violence in ancient Andean societies.

Zach Zorich is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.