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What about the Drug Cult and Human Sacrifice at Chavín de Huántar?

Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.


Of all of the ancient cultures I admire, that of Chavín amazes me the most. Actually, it has been the inspiration behind most of my art.

— Pablo Picasso

The underground temples at Chavín de Huántar were designed to impress and mystify

Scores of pilgrims watch as several priests, elaborately attired with gold ornamentation and colorful textiles, enter a narrow passageway that descends into a labyrinthine subterranean passageway, its walls comprised of stacked boulders and its roof made of square-cut slabs of granite or limestone. Their way lit by handheld torches flickering in the well-ventilated air, the priests file through a maze-like gallery, which winds and turns, disorienting the unwary. Along the way, small chambers to the left and right reveal cult objects such as pottery figurines and colored cotton tapestries. The glassy-eyed appearance of the priests betrays an indulgence in psychotropic substances, perhaps a mescaline-laced beverage derived from the San Pedro cactus or hallucinogenic snuff made from various plants of the tropical rainforest.

Finally, the priests reach a central chamber, in the center of which rests a 15-foot-high, lance-like stone idol known as the Lanzón. Relief along the side of the idol depicts the supreme deity of Chavín de Huántar, a composite being with both animal and human characteristics. The Lanzón, quarried from white granite, signifies the three elements of the cosmic trilogy of the Chavín - the eagle, serpent and feline. This trilogy could be associated in turn with the components of air, water and earth – that is, the habitats of each of these animals. Associated with divine intervention, these elements help maintain a permanent harmony with the cosmos.

This imposing idol also constitutes an axis mundi, or pivot point of the world, its upper section piercing the roof of a cruciform chamber and its base deeply embedded in the floor of the passageway.

The priests ceremoniously circumnavigate the Lanzón. A roaring sound seemingly surrounds the chamber, the result of rainwater rushing through underground channels, (or the water could have been supplied by a conduit to the nearby Huachecsa River). Some think this sound could have resembled the howling of a jaguar in the forest.

The attention of the priest is drawn to the upper level of the Lanzón, where sunlight peeks through the ceiling of the gallery. Suddenly, a muffled cry cuts through the gloom of the chamber, and then seconds later human blood spills over the upper portion of the Lanzón, slowly sliding down the flanks of the cult object, eventually collecting in a bowl around the base of the structure.

The priests presently turn to each other and nod solemnly, confident that the human sacrifice will ensure abundant crops and other fortunate circumstances for the Chavín.

Lanzon close-up

Lanzon close-up

The Old Temple

The Old Temple

Jaguar panel around plaza

Jaguar panel around plaza

Close-up of the Lanzon idol

Close-up of the Lanzon idol

Tenon head

Tenon head

Underground chamber

Underground chamber

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Nobody knows for certain if the previously described ritual actually took place in the so-called Old Temple at Chavín de Huántar, but abundant archaeological evidence seems to indicate that it probably did. Keep in mind, the Chavín had no written language, so archaeologists and researchers can’t read inscriptions or documents to discover exactly what the Chavín did or didn’t do. In fact, no ancient culture in South America produced a written language!

The Chavín culture arose about 900 B.C.E. in Peru, a country with the greatest archaeological attractions in South America, as well as some of the best in the Americas overall. The Chavín civilization’s major city was Chavín de Huántar, a ceremonial and religious center located about 160 miles north of modern Lima. The Chavín empire dominated Peru for about 700 years.

In the book, Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization, Richard L. Burger wrote, “Our analysis of Chavín art and architecture leads to the conclusion that the Chavín cult was created by fusing exotic tropical forest and coastal elements to forge a unique local highland religion. The end product was a cosmopolitan ideology consonant with Chavín de Huántar’s position at the crossroads of long-distance trade routes linking the highlands with the coast and eastern lowlands. The Old Temple was the physical expression and embodiment of the coalescence of these diverse regional traditions.”

Chavín de Huántar needed no military might to hold sway over the region; its power grew from the cultural and religious importance of rituals, sacrifices and divination. Some scholars suggest an oracle may have existed at the site as well, something similar perhaps to the famous Oracle at Delphi of ancient Greece, which, interestingly, began about the same time - 800 B.C. E.

The previously mentioned San Pedro cactus, Echinopsis pachanoi, produces a psychoactive alkaloid known as mescaline, a recreational drug of note in the United States, particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s, when it became a popular party drug similar to LSD. The peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, also produces mescaline. Peyote is often used in the religious ceremonies of Native Americans such as the Navajo. For most people in the U.S., unfortunately, the use of mescaline is illegal.

The priests or shamans at Chavín de Huántar used the offering of the San Pedro cactus for healing and religious purposes, as well as astral projection and divination. The Chavín were so impressed with the cactus that they showed its likeness on statuary, friezes, pottery and tapestries. It also grows wild at the site of Chavín de Huántar.

The use of hallucinogenic snuff was also widespread at the site, as depicted in the artwork around the rims on the sunken plazas of both the Old and New Temples. A quote from Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization will enlighten the reader:

“The role of hallucinogenic snuffs in shamanistic transformation is clearly expressed in the tenoned heads which gazed outwards from the parament of the Old Temple. A typological analysis of these individual sculptures suggests that they represent different stages in the drug-induced metamorphosis of the religious leaders (or their mythical prototypes) into their jaguar or crested-eagle alter egos. A second group of tenoned heads portrays strongly contorted anthropomorphic faces, gaping round eyes, and mucus dripping from their nostrils, either slightly or in long flowing streams.” (Ingesting the snuff through the nostrils reportedly causes a profuse discharge of mucus.)

The mind-altering snuff used at Chavín de Huántar could have included Vilca, Ayahuasca, Yopo or other plant derivatives. The effects of Yopo ingestion are similar to that of DMT (dimethyltryptamine), another recreational drug of the counterculture in the 1960s.

The rituals and ceremonies continued at Chavín de Huántar until about 200 B.C.E. when militarism began to dominate the area, as evidenced by the building of more fortresses in the area about that time. Then the Chavín culture went into decline. Nevertheless, the shamanic tradition utilizing hallucinogenic substances continues to this day in the tropical rainforests of South America, the desert cultures of the American Southwest and many other places in the world.

Please leave a comment.


© 2010 Kelley Marks


Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on March 03, 2020:

The major source for this article is the book, "Chavin and the Origin of Andean Civilization" by Richard L. Burger, which is cited at least two times in the story. Thanks for stopping by Anna!

Anna on March 02, 2020:

No sources?

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on March 12, 2011:

There's plenty more where this one came from, ekenzy. Please read on. Later!

ekenzy on March 12, 2011:

i want to know more. nice hub

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 27, 2010:

Many people haven't heard of the Chavin people. Their culture was one of the most interesting in the ancient world. Thanks for the input. Later!

billyaustindillon on July 27, 2010:

What a wonderful education this was - I have never heard of this and the aspects of the culture.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on July 26, 2010:

Thanks a lot, Lynda. I can always count on you. Later!

lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on July 26, 2010:

A fascinating look at a lost culture. Thanks for this trip into the past. Lynda

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