ART OF THE ANDEAN CIVILIZATIONS – Formative period (1250 BC-100 AD)

During the Formative period appeared the more advanced cultures characterized by a well developed agriculture and pottery, ceremonial centers and housing architecture, although there is no evidence of urban centers or cities per se. This period is also characterized by metallurgy and the discovery of bronze, and by the cultivation of maize and potatoes.

The most representative cultures of the formative period are those of Chavín and Paracas-Cavernas. The first, located in the mountains on the Mosne river (Peru), dates back to the first millennium BC. In the South, on current Bolivian territory, were located the cultures of Wankarani and Chiripa. During the Formative period, the ceramic is represented by that of Cupisnique, stylistically related to the Chavín culture, and by that of Satinar on the north coast. To the south, in the sierra, the pottery of Chañapata and Caluyo were also important.

Chavín de Huantar archaeological site, ca. 1200 BC, located in the Ancash Region of Peru. Left: Panoramic view of Chavín de Huantar archaeological complex. Top right: The New Temple or “El Castillo” (The Castle). Bottom right: The circular sunken plaza.

The Chavín culture

The archaeological site of Chavín de Huantar includes a group of buildings located in the province of Ancash, at the confluence of the Mosne and Wacheksa rivers, at a height of 3177 m above sea level in Peru.

This ceremonial complex is dominated by two large buildings, the largest of which is traditionally known as “El Castillo” (The Castle). It has a pyramidal structure based on overlapping platforms and is 15 m height. The second building called “Templo Viejo” (Old Temple) is chronologically older and shelters the famous sculpture of “El Lanzón” (The Big Spear). In front of “El Castillo” there is a sunken plaza that is a quadrangular enclosure delimited by retaining walls. Two other secondary buildings flank this square.

The “Lanzón” stela inside the Old Temple of Chavín de Huantar. This sculpture is assumed to represent a supreme deity of the city. The figure carved in the stela is anthropomorphic, with a feline head and human body.

The temples of Chavín are large compact structures built in cut stone and clay, and are crossed by interior galleries arranged on different levels. Externally, “El Castillo” has a carved stone baseboard and the walls show large stone heads introduced in the walls by spikes. These heads are called “cabezas clavadas” (nailed heads). The access to the temple includes a beautiful portico with stone jambs and two cylindrical columns flanking the door. These columns measure 2.30 m high by 90 cm in diameter and their incised decoration show anthropomorphic winged figures with bird beaks and tusks.

The Raimondi Stele from Chavín de Huantar currently displayed in the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú in Lima. The stele is seven feet high, was made of highly polished granite, and displays a lightly incised design. Chavin artists frequently used the technique of contour rivalry* in their art forms and this stele is considered one of the finest known examples of this technique. Contour rivalry means that the lines in an image can be read in multiple ways, depending on which way the object is being viewed. When the Raimondi Stela is viewed one way, the image depicts a fearsome deity holding two Huachuma cactus: His eyes look upward toward his large, elaborate headdress of snakes and volutes. When flipped upside-down, the same image can be seen differently, the headdress can be “read” as a stacked row of smiling, fanged faces, while the deity’s face has turned into the face of a smiling reptile. The deity’s staffs also appear to be rows of stacked faces. The use of the contour rivalry technique reflects the widespread Andean concern of the duality and reciprocal nature of Nature, life, and society. This theme is found in the art of many other Andean indigenous civilizations.
Left: The Tello Obelisk at Chavín de Huantar, a prismatic granite monolith that features one of the most complex stone carvings known in the Americas for its time representing two simultaneous representations of a zoomorphic figure dominated by caiman attributes. Right: A nails head representing a Werejaguar embedded in one of the walls of the temple of Chavín de Huantar.
The portico at the New Temple of Chavín de Huantar. Left: View of the Portico of the Falcons. Right: Detailed of the carved decoration of this Portico’s columns.

The sculpture of Chavín includes several stele, the most important of which is “El Lanzón” which is “in situ“. It is a 4.35 m high monolith in form of a spear and is nestled in the interior galleries of the Old Temple. It represents a human figure with feline characters whose hair is formed by snakes. Another important stele is the so-called “Raimondi”. It is considered to be more recent than “El Lanzón” and also represents an anthropomorphic divinity with feline characters. This figure appears standing, in a frontal position, holding crosiers in its hands and is crowned by a large feather headdress. The last great Chavín sculptural piece is the so-called “Obelisk”; this stele includes anthropomorphic representations of felines, condors and snakes, modeled by performing strong incisions on the stone. Few pre-Columbian stelae produce such a strong visual impact as these three stelae from Chavín.

The “nailed heads”, nowadays removed from their original place except one, are three-dimensional and not flat like the stelae but maintain that feline character typical of the entire Chavín culture. Most of these heads are anthropomorphic.

The style of Chavín extended to the coast, so it can be said that it was the first known great Peruvian cultural complex. Other archaeological sites influenced by the style of Chavín include those of Cerro Blanco, in Nepeña, Puncurí and the Casma site all on the coast; in the sierra is Cuntur Huasi, important for its stone sculptures.

The site of Cerro Blanco is a mound about 15 m high formed by conical adobes and stones. On the platform there are several rooms decorated in the style of Chavín with clay reliefs. Puncurí is a platform also made of conical adobes. It has a large clay sculpture in the shape of a feline.

Top left: The Cerro Blanco archaeological site in northern Peru, the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) with the Cerro Blanco in the background. Bottom left: View of the Cerro Sechín archaeological site in Casma Province of Ancash Region in northern Peru. It dates from 1600 BC. Right: A head profile relief on the walls of Cerro Sechín.

In the valley of Casma there are several ceremonial centers being the most important the one of Moxeque, that consists in a 30 m pyramid; the main building has niches containing clay polychrome sculptures. The colors used are red, blue, white, black and emerald green. The anthropomorphic figures were modeled in the Chavín style.

Cerro Sechín is a coastal ceremonial complex also related to Chavín. In this center there is a wall made up of stone monoliths decorated with incised figures on one of their sides. They are anthropomorphic representations, very realistic, that remember the style of the Monte Albán reliefs found in Mexico.

The pottery found in Chavín de Huantar is of two types: “the rocks” and “the offerings”. The first is rough-looking and includes two varieties; one with incised decoration painted in red and other more fine and painted in black. The latter was decorated with feline figures and circles. The ceramics of the “offering” type are morphologically similar, although with more variety of forms, it has preferably a black or gray finish that remembers the stone. Outside the site of Chavín the pottery that best represents this style is that of Cupisnique.

Examples of the Chavín de Huantar pottery. Left: A Chavín stirrup-spouted jar (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland). Center: Chavín ceramics. Right: Chavín stirrup spout vessel with scroll ornament.

Other Cultures from the Formative Period

The culture of Paracas-Cavernas, in the area of ​​Ica, was contemporary to the Chavín culture and although it is considered independent from it, shows at first an influence of the Chavín style in the ceramics known as “Ocucaje”.

The Paracas-Cavernas culture was named after its underground funerary caverns, which are reached by a narrow vertical well that ends in a hemispherical chamber of about 4 m in diameter. Inside this structure were found funeral bundles along with pottery. The mummies were placed in fetal position, with the skulls artificially deformed.

The pottery of Paracas-Cavernas is incised and painted after its firing. The pigments were thick and included yellow, green, red and black. The drawings, in general, were geometric and rectilinear, rarely representing natural forms.

Top left: View of the main plaza at the Tambo Colorado archaeological Inca monument, Paracas, Peru. Top Right: Paracas style ceramic. Bottom left: A Paracas bridge spout vessel, Ocucaje, ca. 500-300 BC. Bottom center: Paracas polychrome bridge-spout effigy vessel, Ocucaje. Bottom right: Paracas pottery, Ocucaje style (Aldo Rubini Drago Collection).

In the last stages of the Formative period, the Paracas-necropolis style appeared which included burial chambers preceded by courtyards and rooms in which were found bundles made of very fine fabrics. These last were cotton robes used to cover the mummies and were embroidered with wool of Lamas or Vicunas, they are of almost 1.30 m width by 2.50 m length. These fabrics have been dated ca. 300 BC. The fabrics are so fine that include up to 300 threads per square inch. They have a marginal border and their central part is dark with embroidered figures arranged in a checkered layout. These figures are anthropomorphic, with feline characters on the face, a centipede-like body, and carry trophy heads in their hands.

Top: The Nasca Mantle from Paracas, 100-300 AD., weaved in cotton and camelid fibers (Brooklyn Museum, New York). Bottom: Detail of the beautiful border figures of the Nasca Mantle from Paracas.
Details from the border figures of the Nasca Mantle of Paracas. Top: A Pampas cat and tree. Bottom left: Several characters with festive attire. Bottom right: A shaman showing knife and head.

Also belonging to the Formative period are the cultures of Salinar, Vicus and Gallinazo. During this period, in the southern sierra, also appeared the culture of Chañapata, but the most important cultures of this region were those of Chiripa and Wankarani, and in a very advanced period the one of Pucara.

The culture of Wankarani dates back to 1100 BC. Apparently it was an incipient culture that didn’t reach its full development. The Wankarani culture was developed north of Lake Poopó, in the present department of Oruro (Bolivia) on a plateau at 4000 m above sea level. This culture was also known as Belén. It consists of 17 archaeological sites composed of small villages lacking a ceremonial center. Wankarani consists of a mound of 75 m in diameter with hundreds of houses. These had mostly circular floor plans with stone foundations and clay walls. Some of these mounds, such as that of Kella-Kollu, were surrounded by stone foundations. This culture knew the process of copper smelting and used obsidian to make arrowheads. The pottery was smooth and polished using a spatula. Characteristic of the Wankarani culture were a series of stone sculptures that represented Lama or Vicuna heads joined to a spike that apparently allowed to embed them in the ground. Although they were of varied quality, some of them impress by their style and strength.

In the site of Chiripa there is a semi-underground temple of 23 m by 21.50 m. The apogee of this culture corresponded to the sixth century BC. The site includes a courtyard formed by four retaining walls. This temple represented the late phase of the Chiripa culture because in lower strata there was a town with several rectangular houses arranged around a circular courtyard. These houses had stone foundations and double walls with obvious signs of having niches and slots arranged to receive sliding doors. Underneath these houses there were burials. The oldest pottery wasn’t decorated with paint; later appeared a type of painted pottery in yellow over red. Their decorative motifs were geometric, preferably staggered. Sometimes they show incised decoration representing human heads or animals.

At the end of the Formative period, at the dawn of the next period known as the Period of the Regional Cultures towards the 1st century BC., the culture of Pucara was born at the northwest of Lake Titicaca. The site shows rough buildings next to a ceremonial center arranged around a courtyard. It was built in stone and has stairs and smooth walls. In Pucara there were found important sculptures stylistically related with the Tiahuanaco culture; the best is the so-called “Degollador” (the beheader), which represents a man with fangs holding a severed head. The pottery of Pucara is morphologically related to that of Tiahuanaco; its technique, however, is incised and painted as that of the Paracas-Cavernas culture mentioned before. In the Pucara pottery, frequent decorative elements featured feline and human heads.

Top and bottom left: Pucara style pottery. Center: The “Hatun Naqak” (“Degollador”) sculpture in the Museo Lítico Pukara (Lampa, Peru). Right: Another view of the “Degollador de Pucara” showing a severed head in its left hand (Museo Lítico Pukara, Lampa, Peru).


Contour rivalry: An artistic technique used to create multiple possible visual interpretations of an image. An image may be viewed as depicting one thing when viewed in a certain way; but if the image is flipped or turned, the same lines that formed the previous image now make up an entirely new design. This technique was widely practiced by the artists of the Chavín culture of the central Andes about two thousand years ago. An example of this technique from the Chavín is the Raimondi Stela.