John Mahar's Blog

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Saturday, July 26, 2008


The music cut out as the truck approached in the oncoming lane. It had been cutting out before, but this time it lent a particularly dramatic effect as the truck, swerving to dodge some cattle on the road, careened toward the grill of our bus. The road didn´t seem wide enough for the two vehicles, let alone the two vehicles and the cows.

I was on my way to Chavin, an archeological site in the Callejón de Huanchucos one valley to the east, just over the Cordillera Blanca, from Huaraz. Chavin is the name of one of many of the pre-Inca cultures that lived in Peru. Chavin was extraordinary in its scope and domination through peaceful means. To put it simply, it was a religious cult and knowledge center that used intimidation and hallucinigens to insure loyalty and offerings.

To my surprise and relief, we avoided collision. But aside from the oncoming traffic, there were more concerns. Boulders up to the size of the bus littered the sides of the road, some looking more freshly fallen than others. Everywhere I looked it seemed something unnerving appeared, and then there was the music. We were listening to Alicia Delgado, a local favorite of the style Huaino, which is kind of like bluegrass meets chinese music, with little mandolin-type instruments, guitars, and harps. Her song "Cerveca, mas cerveza," which means "beer, more beer" was playing, and it made me wonder about the driver of the bus´level of intoxication. That it was Fiestas Patrias, the week-long celebration leading up to Independence Day, July 28th--in which alcohol sales go up 50% across Peru, didn't add to my confort.

If the road, potholed and falling over the side of the cliff it had been carved into, was bad, the curves were disasters. There was no pavement, they were narrower than the road, and all were blind hairpin turns. A few passengeres signed the cross as we entered the tunnel at the top of the pass. Surprisingly, Jesus was on the other side waiting for us. The road grew only more dangerous--perhaps Jesus was there to compensate. On the way down the other side of the pass, I looked down at least 100 feet to the next switchback. Somehow, along with the road a school, some houses, and a soccer field had been carved into the cliff as well. If you were the kid that kicked the ball off the court there, you could be gone for hours trying to retrieve it.

I did, by grace (or thanks to ol' Jesus watching over us), make it to the archeological site. As I mentioned, Chavin was pretty interesting, in that they dominated not through force, but through education and trickery. What does that tell us about education? I'll not ponder that one. A guy named John Rick, a professor from Stanford, was there on site while I was. He claims that, among other things, "Chavín sits squarely in the transition from societies based on relatively egalitarian relations (in which people are fairly close to equal in status and power, and permanent leadership is rare), and states, which are based on intrinsic differences in rights and power between individuals and segments of the population, and a strong, usually hereditary leadership of pervasive control." To see more from Rick, skip to the bottom.

The carvings on the stones are very cool. They combined images of three animals mainly: the snake, representing the underworld, the jaguar, on the ground, and the condor, which, no surprises, represented the heavens. The figures also sometimes included bats.

One of the cooler things there are the stone heads, which, if viewed in a certain order, seem to follow a metamorphasis from human face to a jaguar. This supposedly was the trip they took on the peyote-like San Pedro cactus they used in their ceremonies. As far as I found out, there is not evidence of them using ayahuasca, a somewhat popular, if intense, psychadelic used by shamans in the jungles of Peru today.

RICK, from websites:

SCA: What is the most important thing you've learned from your work at Chavín de Huántar?

JR: In addition to the immense importance of working with the local community, I've labored at two big realms of understanding. The first is how to deal with a site that is monumental in scale, tremendously spatially differentiated (in terms of construction, sedimentation, and content), and went through huge changes in strategy and function as authority evolved. The second is the nature of human authority and what it took to institutionalize and naturalize the idea that humans could have tremendously unequal position in society. Chavín is a lesson in redesigning the human perspective on sources of power and authority; I argue that the long formative trajectory of this site illustrates a level of human originality and ingenuity in rebuilding society, based on the manipulation of belief systems that transforms the world of humans. In the end, Chavín makes me ask big questions about humanity and the way culture has evolved; I honestly do not rest easily with some of the answers that seem to loom large.



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