Cultures & Traditions

Chavín (Chavín de Huántar)

On the western edge of South America, the central Andes cultural area encompasses the modern country of Peru and adjacent areas of Bolivia. From west to east, the central Andes includes the river-crossed coast that borders the Pacific Ocean, the Andean highlands, and the tropical forest that extends eastward towards the Amazon basin. Each of these distinctive environments contributed to the cultures of the region as whole, and there was considerable interaction among them from an early date.

Evidence of that communication coalesced at the site of Chavín de Huántar (Chavín) in the north highlands. This site was the focus of a religious cult whose influence and art style spread throughout the central Andes during the first millennium BCE. Chavín de Huántar is located at a crossroads between north-south trade routes in the mountains and east-west passages between the coast and tropical lowland forest. Richard L. Burger, an archaeologist who has directed excavations at Chavín de Huántar, dates the site overall to about 900 to 200 BCE. Work at the site by a team from Stanford University suggests that the dates may be considerably earlier—that construction at the site ended around 800 BCE and began at least as early as 1200 BCE.

Chavin relief carving, monumental stone sculpture, and architecture draw upon the artistic expressions found at earlier coastal centers, for example, the fully developed religious iconography that feature animals from tropical habitats: the jaguar, harpy eagle, caiman, and serpent. The most influential image is that of the staff-bearing principal deity engraved on the polished surface of the Raimondi Stela, a granite slab 6 ½ feet tall found in the New Temple. The staff-bearing deity's jaguarian attributes are prominent. As a formidable hunter and solitary creature of the land, water, and trees, the jaguar is a symbol of strength and danger. Thus, jaguars (and their attributes) are associated with transformation and are often considered to be the alter ego of priests and shamans.

Adapted from

  • DMA unpublished material [2005.35.McD], 2004.

  • Carol Robbins, "Stirrup-spout vessel (1976.W.56)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 168.

Web Resources

  • UNESCO
    Read more about the Chavín de Huántar archaeological site.

  • Stanford University
    Read about the Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics Project.

  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video and read more about the Chavín de Huántar archaeological site.