Religion in Ancient Western South America

Charles Stanish. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

The first humans to immigrate to the Americas were fully modern Homo sapiens, with the complete biological and intellectual capacity of people today. The intellectual capacity for the symbolizing behavior necessary for religious and scientific concepts most likely developed late in the Middle Paleolithic period in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Contemporary researchers disagree on the timing of these genetic changes, and estimates range from as early as 1 million years ago to as late as 50,000. Yet even the latest date for the origins of what we refer to as subjective consciousness or the “mind” in human populations would still be well before the first immigrations to the western hemisphere. Thus the earliest development of religion and scientific thought in South America was purely a cultural and social process; there is no biological cause for the development of the different kinds of religions and worldviews that developed in this hemisphere.

There is little controversy that the first humans migrated from northeast Asia, although whether they arrived relatively late, around 14,000 years ago, or early, around 25,000, is still hotly debated. Some scholars now believe that early migrants arrived by boats along the coast and there was no need for a land route. Genetic and linguistic data confirm the archaeological data on this point of origin for Native American peoples, both in North America as well as South America. In spite of this, there are virtually no direct links in iconography or ideology between American cultures and those of the Old World. Therefore, the religious doctrines that developed in the Americas appear to have been original to these migrant populations.

At first glance, it would appear very difficult to reconstruct ancient religions in the Americas. With a few notable exceptions such as the Zapotec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican cultures, people in the Americas did not develop writing systems. As a result, it is difficult to directly describe most prehistoric religious systems. However, the peoples of South America did leave a number of important clues, such as elaborate religious designs on pottery, textiles, stone monuments, and other media. We likewise have historical documents from the sixteenth century and later that describe much of the religious doctrines of the indigenous peoples. Another critical source of information is the treatment of the dead. Tombs and graves represent important windows on past religious beliefs, and how people treat the dead reflects many of their cultural values. For the first humans who immigrated into South America, virtually no tombs have been found, but it is likely their burial rituals were similar to hunter and gatherer cultures documented at the time of European contact in the sixteenth century.

The Chinchorro

Sometime in the fifth millennium BCE, a few peoples on the far northern coast of Chile and the far southern coast of Peru began to treat their dead with a reverence never before seen in the Americas. These people, known today as the Chinchorro, gently preserved the remains of adults and children with mud plaster and adornments. Bernardo Arriaza describes this burial tradition in great detail, noting that this was the first documented case of intentional mummification and elaborate treatment of the dead. The Chinchorro mummies and burial practices provide evidence for some kind of religious sensibility that links the living with the dead, and most likely the dead with some kind of afterlife.

The earliest Chinchorro bodies were eviscerated and the bones were defleshed. The body was reconstructed with vegetal matter and other materials, and then resurfaced with mud mortar. Masks were made with facial features, and clay sexual organs were molded. The bodies were covered in black or red pigments. A black pigment was at first favored. Around 2500 BCE, according to Arriaza and his colleagues, Chinchorro peoples shifted to red, perhaps reflecting a shifting religious belief. Of particular interest is the shift to open eyes and mouths for the facial features. Arriaza suggests that this may have been to “feed” the mummies, a practice documented among central Andean peoples millennia later by European writers. At the end of this millennium, complex processing of the bodies gave way to simple natural dessication and plastering with mud.

Researchers note that the Chinchorro mummies were continually repaired. This is an extremely important observation. Such a practice means that the mummies were periodically removed from their resting place and used in some sort of ritual. It is highly likely that such a practice indicates that the Chinchorro people recognized some kind of relationship between the living and the dead. It suggests that they had a clear sense of the afterlife, in that the mummy embodied some kind of soul or essence of the dead person. Few goods were left with the burials, but the kinds of goods that they left were typical of daily life, such as fishing implements and basketry. This practice suggests that their conception of the afterlife was similar to the earthly life and that they gave the dead the tools for “living” in their new state.

All kinds of people in Chinchorro society were mummified, children as well as adults, and the mummies reflect differing social status. Unlike other religious traditions around the world and those described below for later periods in Andean prehistory, the Chinchorro mortuary practices suggest that all people reaped the same fate upon death. This distinction and the lack of any kind of religious icons in the burials suggest that there were few or no formal religious rituals or requirements to enter the Chinchorro afterlife.

First Signs of Religion Reflected in Art

The first artistic motifs in western South America with imagery evocative of religious beliefs were produced sometime between 2700 and 1800 BCE on the Peruvian coast. Michael Moseley’s research has provided examples from this era of gourds and textiles with condor heads, fish, eels, and doubleheaded serpents from the early monumental site of Huaca Prieta in northern Peru. These motifs reoccur throughout three more millennia of Peruvian art. In later periods, these motifs are found on more complex imagery with clear mythical import. The information from the history of art suggests that tangible concepts of a religious nature developed in the third millennium BCE. The development of these concepts is related to the beginning of settled village life where the people built large public monuments.

A stunning archaeological example was excavated from the small Pyramid of the Sacrifices at the site of Aspero in the Peruvian north coastal valley of Supe. Robert Feldman excavated a level that dated to between 2500 and 3000 BCE, where burials of an infant and adult were found. These burials were carefully prepared and placed on the top of this temple, and they were accompanied by high-value items such as shells, beads, a beautiful carved stone basin, a cotton textile, and a fine cap. Traces of red pigment were found as well. On the nearby Pyramid of the Idols, Feldman found at least thirteen broken clay figurines, eleven of which were females in a seated position.

The Aspero cache is typical of this time period around coastal South America. The entire complex, a series of low platform temples with carefully deposited burials of humans and artificial representations of humans, represents a different kind of religious conception than that of Chinchorro. Unlike the Chinchorro mummy burials, Aspero burials have fancy objects not used in everyday life. Can we interpret this to suggest that the Aspero conception of the afterlife was not one of an “earthly” experience, but one that was metaphysically different from the corporeal life? One cannot precisely know the religious meaning held by a nonliterate people five millennia ago, but the Aspero burial practices were decidedly different from the Chinchorro and suggest a major shift in such concepts in the coast of western South America at this time.

The Aspero monuments, like hundreds more that were built throughout western South America at this time, represent the first complex architecture in the history of the continent. Many scholars interpret these first monuments as temples or central places where ritual was conducted by the community as a whole. As a general principle, we can therefore say that the formalization of religious concepts, as embodied in art, coevolves with the development of social stratification and large buildings that had religious functions.

Origins of Metaphysics and Myth

Metaphysical concepts were clearly developed by the middle of the second millennium BCE in western South America. Numerous archaeological sites exhibit art that almost certainly depicts religious concepts involving mythic animals, powerful individuals, and other themes. The architecture of the public buildings in central settlements suggests they were built to orchestrate processions of a political or ritual nature. The famous site of Cerro Sechin in the Casma Valley of northern Peru is a classic example. The site was built against a low mountain. Its adobe and stone buildings enclose a space of highly restricted access. Along the front wall of the site is a series of carvings depicting macabre scenes of war, decapitations, trophy heads, body parts, kings, captives, and warriors. The art most likely depicts scenes of actual political and social violence prevalent in that society. However, it is also likely that such art, designed to last for generations, had multiple meanings. Richard Burger describes the Sechin art as an example of a major building “decorated with religious and mythical themes.”

Moxeke and Cerro Sechin, two other major settlements in the same valley, are contemporary with Sechin Alto. The sites of these large, elaborate settlements contain carved stone blocks with serpents, hands, and multicolored clay sculptures. The elaborate buildings have restricted access and most certainly had religious functions of some sort. The restricted access and the carvings placed along walls and steps suggest orchestrated movement in ritual processions. Such architecture is generally understood to be the product of a priestly class that creates and maintains religious dogma. Throughout the Andes, we find settlements of this time with similarly complex architecture and art. We can therefore say with some confidence that the first evidence of a priesthood, or at the very least a ritual-specialist class, developed in the second millennium BCE in western South America.

In the period 1500-500 BCE, we see a more coherent and rich suite of iconographic motifs in the art and architecture of the cultures of the Andes. The culture of Chavin is emblematic of this tradition. To many scholars, Chavin art represents the first truly esoteric religious tradition in western South America. Chavin art and presumably religious ideology spread throughout the central Andes, over a vast area. The main site of Chavin is a large, proto-urban center with massive temples, underground chambers, large open courts, staircases, and elaborate carved stone. Burger notes that Chavin art is fundamentally representational with natural forms intentionally mystified by their artists. The sculpture and bas reliefs are dominated by images of tropical forest animals such as caymans and jaguars, serpents, birds of prey, and other symbols sometimes associated with shamanistic visions. Anthropomorphic heads with some animal elements, such as fangs, are also common. Burger views Chavin art as “primarily a vehicle to embue worldly matter with a transcendent message belonging to the religious system.” Regardless of our interpretations, there is little question that by the first millennium BCE in the central Andes, a complex religion had developed. This religion included an esoteric component that would have required the intervention of a priestly class to execute. These religious principles spread throughout a number of cultures in Andean South America at this time.

More Formalized Religion

The formalization of religious concepts continued in the Moche state around 150 BCE to 700 CE. The Moche built spectacular temples and palaces adorned with friezes that depict mythological and processional scenes. Moche potters produced some of the finest ceramic art in the world. These media contain a rich suite of motifs of mythical beings, anthropomorphized animals, scenes of procession, sacrifice, war, and priestly office. Christopher Donnan, who has studied these motifs for decades, notes that there are basic themes in Moche iconography that last for centuries, suggesting that these represent some basic principles in their religious canon. He has demonstrated that there were clear “offices” in Moche ritual life, and he sees analogies to the bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church, with their distinctive dress and regalia. Ritual processions, led by religious specialists, are clearly evident in Moche art. The architecture of temple pyramids, with their adorning friezes and paintings, is consistent with such an orchestration of ritual activity.

In this sense, we see that the formalization of religious concepts and ritual specialists, first evident in Chavin and related cultures, is firmly established in the Moche. By the beginning of the first millennium CE, the concept of a formal religious canon along with a full-time priestly class was established in western South America.

Similar formal religious traditions existed in the other two great Andean states of the first millennium CE: Tiwanaku and Wari. Both were highland cultures, and much of their iconography derives from the earlier Chavin traditions. As in Moche, it is likely that there were priestly classes in these two states. A rich suite of repetitive imagery characterizes the religious art of both cultures, indicating again the existence of some kind of formal, shared ideology that spread over a wide area for centuries.

The beginning of the first millennium CE in western South America was a time of great upheaval. The Moche state collapsed around 800, and Tiwanaku and Wari were gone by 1000. On the coast, Moche traditions largely disappeared and were replaced with a series of regional cultures. In the highlands of Peru, Ecuador, and northwestern Bolivia, there is evidence of great strife. Few scholars doubt that the collapse of the great art traditions of the first millennium CE paralleled a dramatic shift in the religious traditions of these cultures as well.

The Rise of the Inca

In this context of warring ethnic groups, the Inca Empire arose in the fourteenth or early fifteenth century. The Inca, like all successful premodern empires, fashioned a complex, bureaucratic religion that served to integrate their empire. Thanks to the writings of Spanish and indigenous scholars of the sixteenth century, we have a good understanding of the theology and structure of the Inca religion. Inca religious doctrine at its height around the time of European conquest in the sixteenth century was a product of at least three generations of development.

The Inca were Quechua speakers who first developed as a recognizable political entity around 1300 in the central highlands in the Vilcanota river valley in what is now the Cusco area. A set of local folk beliefs was slowly converted into an elaborate religion by the religious specialists in the empire. At its height, Inca religion was highly bureaucratic. At the apex of the religion was the emperor. Below the emperor were a number of offices that paralleled the political bureaucracy. Male priests and “chosen women,” who also had religious duties, lived in religious buildings around the empire. Local religions were not suppressed, but all peoples were expected to recognize the divinity of the Inca gods.

The Inca also worshipped mountains, caves, springs, and other natural features of the landscape. These features, known as huacas, were considered to be endowed with a sacred animus or power. At the time of the Spanish conquest, there were thousands of minor and dozens of major huacas throughout the Andes. The most important shrines required substantial amounts of goods for their maintenance and were attended by hundreds of retainers.

The sun and moon were central to Inca cosmology and religious beliefs, particularly those concepts surrounding the huacas. The empire established several major pilgrimage centers around the empire at the major huacas. The most important pilgrimage destination was in Cusco, the capital. The building complex known as the Coricancha, or enclosure of gold, was dedicated to various deities, including the sun, moon, stars, thunder, the rainbow, and the creator god Viracocha. The Inca conceived of their lands as a giant human body, and the Coricancha represented the navel of their universe. The outside walls of the Coricancha were reportedly covered in sheet gold. As the pilgrims made their way to Cusco and arrived from either mountain chain, they would have been awed with the glistening gold building.

A second pilgrimage destination was the site of Pachacamac on the coast, near modern-day Lima. Pachacamac held an idol that was created before the Inca Empire began. Both archaeology and documents confirm that this was a famous center for centuries before the Inca. Pachacamac was an oracle center, surrounded by an urban population, and greatly admired by many peoples in Peru. In a sense, Pachacamac functioned like Delphi in ancient Greece. The Inca elaborated on the architecture of the site, building some spectacular temples to their religion. They also built residences for the chosen women and priests.

Perhaps the most famous of the pilgrimage destinations in the Inca Empire was a building complex on the Islands of the Sun and Moon, in the southern Titicaca basin. The first Spaniards who arrived in Peru were told of mysterious islands in an inland sea where the sun and moon were born. According to Inca religion, the founding couple of the Inca state emerged from these islands, near a great natural rock called the Titikala. The Inca built a massive complex on the two islands, as well as structures in the nearby Copacabana peninsula area. There was a temple to the sun and other sky deities, a large residence for the chosen women, and various way stations and offering platforms. It is likely that the Inca also established a number of religious buildings on the many smaller islands in the lake to create a water pilgrimage route.

The Island of the Sun was one of the greatest of the huacas. The main focus was the Titikala or Sacred Rock. Titicacamost likely derives from the native term Taksi Kala, meaning “fundamental stone of origin.” The actual Sacred Rock is a large exposed outcrop of reddish sandstone near the center of what would have been the sanctuary area. Early documents indicate that the rock was covered with fine cloth and faced with plates of gold and silver. Corn beer and other liquids were poured into small channels directly in front of the outcrop. This was one of the most sacred areas in the ancient Andes, a place where tens of thousands of pilgrims visited over the life of the empire.

The religions of ancient South America were rich and profound. By any measure, they were as complex and sophisticated as any religion created in the Western world, Asia, or Africa. They gave comfort to their adherents, they served the interests of the many empires and states, and they served to integrate the multifaceted lifestyles and cultures of these extraordinary peoples.