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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Snake-Cats at the Lanzon de Templo Viaje

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There I was, riding on the cliff side of a packed van down a muddy road that seemed narrower than the van itself. Below us lay a green valley surrounded by tremendous peaks. As we slid down through the muck, we prayed we would not topple over and plummet a thousand feet into the valley below. I was surprised that there were only two other foreigners on the bus, but it was not surprising that our destination, the pre-Incan ruins at Chavin, would be of interest to both Peruanos and extranjeros (Peruvians and foreigners). This site is the oldest temple-ruin and the center of the Chavin Horizon Culture. Their peaceful way of life was a major influence on the cultures of northern Peru.

Arriving safely at the ruins, I was not immediately impressed by giant structures or incredible carvings like some of the other ruins I have visited. Most of the temple has been buried by mudslides, and the real marvel of Chavin is the complex network of underground tunnels and chambers, and the fact that it was built almost 3,000 years ago using stone tools. Once I had a chance to explore the ruins and learn more about what I was looking at, I couldn't help but be amazed.

Many of the stone blocks were cut and fit with precision that would be difficult to equal with power tools, and the main plaza is a perfect square of about an acre, and has a one-meter incline with a system of drainage tunnels so that it will not flood. The whole temple complex is aligned, from north to south, with a line running from the main temple entrance through the plaza, dividing it into the four directions. Above the plaza rises the temple, a three-tiered square that is flat on top and still amazingly intact considering its age. There is another smaller, ceremonial plaza next to the temple, but this one is remarkable for its perfect roundness.

It was not until we made it up to the temple and discovered the tunnels that the real appeal of Chavin became clear. There are several different types of tunnels making up a complicated maze of galleries, water-tunnels and passages. There were some open-passage entrances near the front of the temple, so I took out my trusty flashlight and went exploring. The tunnel I followed was big enough to walk through by ducking a little. It led deeper and deeper into the mucky earth until it ran into a crossroad. I took another tunnel a bit further until I came into a larger chamber, one of many tombs beneath the temple. I could hear bats screeching and saw them flying around my head. It seemed like they wanted to be left alone, so I decided to start back. Just as I turned to leave, my flashlight flickered out! I had to feel my way back out and walk very slowly, so as not to fall into any of the openings in the floor I had noticed on the way down. 'Was that a right at the intersection or a straight?' I thought. When I finally saw light and reached the surface, the rest of the tour had disappeared.

When I caught up with them, they were doing some tomb exploring of their own in the upper galleries. These are a series of large chambers and passages containing carved heads called cabeza claves, and stone reliefs of ancient deities. The most notable carving at Chavin is a 12-foot tall, stone totem that stands in the center of a cross formed by four tunnels. It is called the Lanzon de Templo Viaje, and it represents an anthropomorphic god that has taken form of both a serpent and a feline. Although its true name and its significance have both long been forgotten, it is awe-inspiring to see this ancient stone giant still standing deep beneath the fortress that has protected it for so long.

Though not much is really known about the people who lived at Chavin, it is well established that the culture and ingenuity that was cultivated here spread from central Peru to Ecuador. Even the great Incas, who are so famous for their precision with stone, must owe a tremendous debt to these mysterious ancient people. The resemblance of artifacts of Chavin Horizon Culture to those of the Maya presents strong evidence of trade with people as far north as Guatemala. While the on the other side of the world the Greek Empire was just being born, Chavin Culture was flourishing, but unlike the Greeks, they left us no written history, only a few reflections carved in stone to remember them by.

Shawn
 

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