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Characters and historical events ››

  1. Chavin Civilization
  2. Viracocha
  3. Wanka Civilization
  4. Moundville
  5. Cahokia
  6. Quipu
  7. Mictlantecuhtli

Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places

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[ 1 ]

Chavin Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Chavin civilization flourished between 900 and 200 BCE in the northern and central Andes and was one the earliest pre-Inca cultures. The Chavin religious centre Chavin de Huantar became an important Andean pilgrimage site, and Chavin art was equally influential both with contemporary and later cultures from the Paracas to the Incas, helping to spread Chavin imagery and ideas and establish the first universal Andean belief system.

Chavin Religion

One of the most important Chavin gods was the Staff Deity, who is the most likely subject for the famous central figure on the Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku. Forerunner of the Andean creator god Viracocha, the Staff Deity was associated with agricultural fertility and usually holds a staff in each hand but is also represented in a statue from the New Temple at the Chavin cult site of Chavin de Huantar (see below). This half-metre figure represents male and female duality with one hand holding a spondylus shell and the other a strombus shell. Another celebrated representation from the same site is the Raimondi Stela, a two-metre high granite slab with the god incised in low relief as a non-gender specific figure with clawed feet, talons, and fangs in an image which can be read in two directions. A second important Chavin deity was the fanged jaguar god, also a popular subject in Chavin art.
Chavin religious ceremony involved multi-sensory spectacles which included blood-letting and sacrificial rituals.
Chavin religious ceremony involved multi-sensory spectacles which included blood-letting and sacrificial rituals which could be performed in public spaces accommodating up to 1,500 people or in the more restricted and exclusive environment of complex temple interiors. An important feature of the cult was a priesthood of shamans who would put themselves in trances via hallucinatory plants, such as coca leaves and certain types of cacti and mushrooms. An added aura of religious mystery was achieved with the burning of incense, priests suddenly appearing atop the temples via secret internal staircases, and a cacophony of musical sounds from singers and shell trumpets.

Chavin de Huantar

The most important Chavin religious site was Chavin de Huantar in the Mosna Valley, which was in use for over five centuries and became a pilgrimage site famed throughout the Andean region. The site is significantly placed at the meeting point of two rivers - a typical Andean tradition - the Mosna and Wacheksa. Ancient landslides left fertile terraces, and the proximity of many springs and an ample and varied supply of stone for monumental building projects ensured the growth of the site.
At its peak the centre had a population of 2,000-3,000 and covered around 100 acres. The Old Temple dates from c. 750 BCE and is actually a complex of buildings which together form a U-shape. In the centre, two staircases descend to a circular sunken court. The walls of the buildings are lined with square and rectangular stone slabs which carry images of transformational, shamanic creatures, carved in low relief. The figures mix human features with jaguar fangs and claws and they wear snake headdresses symbolising spiritual vision.
The 4.5 metre tall Lanzón monolith takes the form of a traditional Andean foot plough and stands deep within the labyrinthine interior of the Old Temple. It shows a supernatural creature with tusks and claws which is decorated with snakes. The creature points down with one hand and up with the other, perhaps indicative of its rulership of the earthly and heavenly realms. It is thought that this monolith was perhaps the site of an ancient oracle which gave answers to the demands of pilgrims who in turn left offerings of gold, obsidian, shells, and ceramics. There are also many stone channels in the temple interior through which water would have run under pressure thus creating an impressive noise in the confined inner chambers and an evocative accompaniment to the oracle's declarations.
The most striking feature of the New Temple (from c. 500 BCE), which was actually an extension of the Old Temple complex, is the 100 surviving stone heads which once protruded from the exterior walls. These form a transformational series and progressively change from human to jaguar form. The temple in its new form measured 100 metres in length and reached a height of 16 metres with three stories. Its Black and White Portal entrance is flanked on either side by a single column; one carries an image of an eagle, the other a hawk representing the female and male respectively in a typical Chavin example of duality. The New Temple also contains the 2.5 metre tall Tello Obelisk which shows two caymans and snakes and may represent the creation myth. Opposite the temple a large square 50-metre-sided sunken court was constructed for ceremonial purposes, a feature which would become standard in many subsequent Andean religious sites.
Other more modest buildings at Chavin de Huantar, which often use distinctive conical-shaped adobe bricks, indicate that there was a large number of permanent residents, a social hierarchy, and centres of craft specialization. The site and the Chavin culture in general entered into decline sometime in the 3rd century CE for reasons which remain unclear but that are probably related to several years of drought and earthquakes and the inevitable social upheaval caused by such stress. There is no archaeological evidence of a Chavin military force or of specific regional conquests. The political structures of the Chavin, then, unfortunately remain mysterious, but they did create a lasting artistic legacy which would influence almost all subsequent Andean civilizations.

Chavin Art

Chavin art is full of imagery of felines (especially jaguars), snakes, and raptors, as well as supernatural beings, often with ferocious-looking fangs. Creatures are often transformational - presented in two states at once - and designed to both confuse and surprise. Images are also very often anatropic - they may be viewed from different directions. As the art historian R. R. Stone summarises:
A strong perceptual effect, certainly calculated by Chavin artists, inspires confusion, surprise, fear, and awe through the use of dynamic, shifting images that contain varying readings depending on the direction in which they are approached. (37)
It is also noteworthy that many of the animals in Chavin imagery are from the distant lowland jungles and thus illustrate the far-reaching influence of Chavin culture, a point further confirmed by the presence at Chavin de Huantar of votive offerings from cultures hundreds of kilometres distant. The Staff Deity was another popular subject in Chavin sculpture, ceramics, and textiles. The painted cotton textiles of the Chavin are, in fact, the earliest such examples from any Andean culture and take the form of hangings, belts, and clothes.
Typical Chavin pottery is high quality and thin-walled, usually a polished red, black, or brown. The most common shape is the stirrup-spouted bulbous vessel, often with polished raised designs depicting imagery from Chavin religion. Vessels could also be anthropomorphic, typically of jaguars, seated humans, and fruits and plants. Shells were a popular form of jewellery amongst the Chavin elite and could also be carved into trumpets for use in religious ceremonies. Fine wooden bowls survive which are exquisitely inlaid with spondylus shell and mother-of-pearl, as well as turquoise. Finally, the Chavin were skilled metal workers and created objects - especially cylinder crowns, masks, pectorals, and jewellery - in sheet gold using soldering and repoussé techniques to rival any other Andean culture in their imagination and execution.
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[ 2 ]

Viracocha

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Viracocha was the supreme god of the Incas. He is also known as Huiracocha, Wiraqoca and Wiro Qocha. Considered the creator god he was the father of all other Inca gods and it was he who formed the earth, heavens, sun, moon and all living beings. When he finished his work he was believed to have travelled far and wide teaching humanity and bringing the civilised arts before he headed west across the Pacific, never to be seen again but promising one day to return. In his absence lesser deities were assigned the duty of looking after the interests of the human race but Viracocha was, nevertheless, always watching from afar the progress of his children.

Alternative Names

As the supreme pan-Andean creator god, omnipresent Viracocha was most often referred to by the Inca using descriptions of his various functions rather than his more general name which may signify lake, foam, or sea-fat. These other names, perhaps used because the god's real name was too sacred to be spoken, included Ilya (light), Ticci (beginning), and Wiraqoca Pacayacaciq (instructor).

The Creator God

It was believed that human beings were actually Viracocha's second attempt at living creatures as he first created a race of giants from stone in the age of darkness. However, these giants proved unruly and it became necessary for Viracocha to punish them by sending a great flood. In the legend all these giants except two then returned to their original stone form and several could still be seen in much later times standing imposingly at sites such as Tiahuanaco (also known as Tiwanaku) and Pukará.
As the supreme pan-Andean creator god, omnipresent Viracocha was most often referred to by the Inca using descriptions of his various functions.
Then Viracocha created men and women but this time he used clay. He also gave them such gifts as clothes, language, agriculture and the arts and then created all animals. Even more useful was Viracocha's decision to create the sun, moon and stars and so bring light to the world. These heavenly bodies were created from islands in Lake Titicaca. Finished, and no doubt highly satisfied with his labours, Viracocha then set off to spread his civilizing knowledge around the world and for this he dressed as a beggar and assumed such names as Con Ticci Viracocha (also spelt Kon-Tiki), Atun-Viracocha and Contiti Viracocha Pachayachachic. He was assissted on his travels by two sons or brothers called Imaymana Viracocha and Tocapo Viracocha. The god was not always well received despite the knowledge he imparted, sometimes even suffering stones thrown at him. Ending up at Manta (in Ecuador), Viracocha then walked across the waters of the Pacific (in some versions he sails a raft) heading into the west but promising to return one day to the Inca and the site of his greatest works.

Worship

Viracocha was actually worshipped by the pre-Inca of Peru before being incorporated into the Inca pantheon. In Inca mythology the god gave a headdress and battle-axe to the first Inca ruler Manco Capac and promised that the Inca would conquer all before them. The god's name was also assumed by the king known as Viracocha Inca (died 1438 CE) and this may also be the time when the god was formally added to the family of Inca gods. Worshipped at the Inca capital of Cuzco, Viracocha also had temples and statues dedicated to him at Caha and Urcos and sacrifices of humans (including children) and, quite often, llamas, were made to the god on important ceremonial occasions. As other Inca gods were more important for the daily life of common people, Viracocha was principally worshipped by the nobility, and then usually in times of political crisis.

Viracocha in Art

In art Viracocha is often depicted as an old bearded man wearing a long robe and supported by a staff. One of his earliest representations may be the weeping statue at the ruins of Tiwanaku, close to Lake Titicaca, the traditional Inca site where all things were first created. Here, sculpted on the lintel of a massive gateway, the god holds thunderbolts in each hand and wears a crown with rays of the sun whilst his tears represent the rain. Another famous sculpture of the god was the gold three-quarter size statue at Cuzco which the Spanish described as being of a white-skinned bearded male wearing a long robe.
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[ 3 ]

Wanka Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Wanka (also Wanca or Huanca) people occupied the highlands of ancient central Peru around Lake Junin and the Manataro, Chanchamayo and Tarma rivers. The culture flourished from the Middle to Late Horizon periods (600 CE - 1532 CE). Dwelling in fortified hill-top settlements, they largely specialised in llama herding. As with other cultures in the area, herding was long-preferred over farming. It was not until c. 1000 CE that intense maize farming began, much later than in other contemporary cultures. This shift in agricultural practice was motivated by changes in settlements and a significant increase in population density. Now concentrated in walled towns, the capital city of the Wanka was established at Wari Willka.
Wanka art and architecture across their different settlements were influenced by the nearby Huari culture and the Ayacucho style. Settlements vary in size with the majority having fewer than 50 buildings but several having over 100. Most buildings were circular and arranged in small groups of up to twelve around an open courtyard. There is not much evidence of town planning, although some settlements were constructed in pairs in close proximity.
The Wanka provided stiff resistance to the Inca Empire until their final defeat at the hands of the great Inca leader Pachacuti.
The Wanka provided stiff resistance to the Inca Empire until their final defeat at the hands of the great Inca leader Pachacuti (r. 1438 - 1471 CE). The Incas shifted populations to lower-level locations and administered the area from an imperial centre at Jaujatambo. Agriculture became better organised in order to produce quotas for the Inca state and large storage buildings (qollqa) were built.
Never wholly subjugated to Inca rule, the Wanka were often embroiled in border disputes with their neighbours the Xauxa, and the Incas describe the Wanka as being continuously plagued by internal disputes. Nevertheless, they became keen allies of Pizarro in his conquest of the Inca Empire. The Wankas also helped the Spanish Crown put down several rebellions in the early decades of colonial rule in Peru, notably the defeat of Francisco Hernández Girón between 1553 and 1554 CE. Their name lives on today with the Peruvian city and province of Huancayo being named after them, as is the local football team Deportivo Wanka.
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[ 4 ]

Moundville

Origin and history
by Chickasaw.tv

Moundville was a site occupied by Mississippian culture from about 1000 CE until 1450 CE, in central Alabama. One of the largest settlements at the time, the site boasts what appears to have been a highly stratified society.
The town was occupied for some time, but the fall of the community was rapid. Scholars have said that most of the culture is still not entirely understood.
The Moundville Archaeological Park now rests on the site. The park itself is 320 acres and contains 26 prehistoric, Mississippian culture-era Native American earthwork mounds, burial sites, plus numerous artifacts.
A museum was erected in 1939, and it now combines some of the latest technology and over 200 artifacts to showcase one of the most significant Native American archaeological sites in the United States.
Some archaeologists believe that Moundville is a link to ancestral Chickasaw history. Moundville pottery that dates from 1100 CE to nearly 1500 CE has been found west of the Tombigbee River in Mississippi. This indicates that people from Moundville could be ancestral Chickasaws.
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[ 5 ]

Cahokia

Origin and history
by Chickasaw.tv

Cahokia refers to the location where Mississippian culture thrived before European explorers landed in the Americas. From about 700 CE to 1400 CE, this site flourished and was once one of the greatest cities in the world. The early Native American cultural hub once boasted a wide variety of edifices, including everything from monumental structures to basic homes for practical living. This complex society at Cahokia prospered in the fertile lands off of the Mississippi River (situated across the river from modern St. Louis, Missouri), and it was booming long before Europeans came to America.
The ruins of this sophisticated native civilization are preserved at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois. Within this 2,200-acre area, the remnants of ancient Cahokia are displayed, paying tribute to one of the largest and most influential urban settlements of Mississippian culture. The 3.5-square-mile park contains the ruins of approximately 80 mounds. However, at Cahokia’s height, the site included more than 120 earthen mounds over an expanse of approximately six square miles.
Cahokia is considered a national historic landmark and is protected by the state of Illinois. It is currently believed to be the largest archaeological ruins north of Mexico’s great pre-Columbian cities.
The fate of the Cahokian people and their once-impressive city is mysterious. The decline of this great civilization is believed to have been gradual. Most historians agree that the Cahokians began abandoning the city around the 1200s, and by 1400 CE the civilization was completely deserted. It is unknown why these people left or where they went. However, this site is significant to Chickasaw history because it is likely the place where many of the Chickasaw Nation’s ancestors originated.
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[ 6 ]

Quipu

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

A quipu, or knot-record (also called khipu), was a method used by the Incas and other ancient Andean cultures to keep records and communicate information. In the absence of an alphabetic writing system, this simple and highly portable device achieved a surprising degree of precision and flexibility. Using a wide variety of colours, strings, and sometimes several hundred knots all tied in various ways at various heights, quipu could record dates, statistics, accounts, and even represent, in abstract form, key episodes from traditional folk stories and poetry. In recent years scholars have also challenged the traditional view that quipu were merely a memory aid device and go so far as to suggest that quipu may have been progressing towards narrative records and so becoming a viable alternative to written language just when the Inca Empire collapsed.

Method

A typical quipu consists of a horizontal string or even wooden bar, from which hang any number of knotted and coloured strings made from either cotton or wool. Some of the larger quipu have as many as 1500 strings, and these could also be woven in different ways suggesting this, too, had a meaning. The various colour shades used could also carry a specific meaning. So, too, the type of knot, the position of it on the string, the total number of knots and the sequence of the knots could all combine to create a potentially huge number of meanings. The whole method was based on a decimal positional system, with the largest decimal used being 10,000. The Inca mathematical system was almost exactly the same as our own system in use today. The numbers or units in the system on a particular quipu are indicated by the strings furthest from the primary string, acting as a sort of key.
Different types of knots had different meanings. For example, a knot could indicate a number from one to nine by the turns of string within the knot, a figure-of-eight knot could indicate a fixed value, a 'granny' knot equalled ten, and a string missing a knot signified zero. Secondary strings could also hang from any single string and these could indicate that this string was an exception or of secondary importance to the other strings. Finally, individual quipu could join with others in a specific and meaningful sequence.
Knots and colours could combine to create a potentially huge number of meanings.
Naturally, to maximise the quipu's potential for information storage, it was better to have an accompanying oral record and so there grew a body of experts or masters, the khipu kamayuq (also quipucamayos). These individuals memorized the oral account which fully explained a particular quipu and, as the job was hereditary, the oral part was passed from generation to generation. There was a certain pressure attached to the job, however, as lapses in memory could be severely punished.

Purpose

At Cuzco, the Inca capital, the khipu kamayuq were professionals, and besides keeping official records, they also used quipu as an aide memoire to recount stories, myths and poems from the Inca tradition. Quipu were also used to record imperial conquests and royal blood-lines. They were ideal for recording the census data for provinces, i.e. total numbers, specific numbers of males and females, children, married and unmarried, etc. Other kinds of data that quipu were used to record included accounts, stores, taxes (paid in kind), livestock, land measurements, armies and their equipment, astronomy, and calendars. Quipu were also used, along with a short oral description, by Inca postal messengers (chaski).

Surviving Examples

Many Inca quipu were purposely destroyed when Atawalpa took power and sought to clean the slate of Inca history, and, in particular, destroy the historical record concerning the reign of his bitter rival and half-brother, Waskhar. Then, following the Spanish conquest, even more quipu records were sought out and destroyed, the new rulers being highly suspicious of the information they might contain within their knots. As a result of these actions, only several hundred examples of quipu survive today. However, quipu are still used by Andean people even today, most often by shepherds and herders as a method to record livestock numbers.
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[ 7 ]

Mictlantecuhtli

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Mictlantecuhtli (pron. Mict-lan-te-cuht-li) or ‘Lord of the Land of the Dead’ was the Aztec god of death and worshipped across Mesoamerica. He ruled the underworld (Mictlán) with his wife Mictecacíhuatl. The god was the ruler of the 10th day Itzcuintli (Dog), the 5th Lord of the Night and the 6th (or 11th) Lord of the Day. He was the equivalent of the Maya god Yum Cimil, the Zapotec god Kedo and the Tarascan god Tihuime. Mictlantecuhtli was closely associated with owls, spiders and bats and the direction south.

The Creation Myth

In the Aztec creation myth Mictlantecuhtli attempted to delay the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl on his journey into Mictlán. Quetzalcoatl was searching for the bones of the creatures from the previous world of the 4th Sun in order to make mankind. Amongst the tricks and difficult tasks Mictlantecuhtli set was to insist that Quetzalcoatl could only take the bones away with him if he went around the underworld four times blowing a conch-shell trumpet. This task was not quite as simple as it seemed as the god of the underworld only gave Quetzalcoatl an ordinary conch-shell and so it would not sound. Quetzalcoatl got around the problem by having worms drill holes in the shell and placing bees inside it so that their buzzing would sound like a trumpet. Not to be outdone by this, Mictlantecuhtli let Quetzalcoatl think that he had got the better of things and allowed him to take the bones.
Mictlantecuhtli was such an important god in the Aztec pantheon because, as ruler of Mictlán, all souls would one day meet him face to face.
Mictlantecuhtli, then, far from giving up, arranged for his assistants, the Micteca, to dig a large pit so that Quetzalcoatl would stumble into it when he tried to leave Mictlán. Sure enough, when passing the pit and, unluckily startled by a passing quail, Quetzalcoatl fell into the trap and the bones became broken and scattered. However, Quetzalcoatl roused himself and gathering up the bones managed to extract himself from the pit and get away unscathed from the clutches of Mictlantecuhtli. Once safely delivered to the goddess Cihuacóatl, the bones were mixed with Quetzalcoatl's blood and from the mixture sprang forth the first men and women.

Mictlàn

Mictlantecuhtli was such an important god in the Aztec pantheon because, as ruler of Mictlán, all souls would one day meet him face to face, for it was believed that only those who suffered a violent death, women who died in childbirth or people killed by storms or floods avoided the underworld in the afterlife. The Aztecs did not believe in a special paradise reserved only for the righteous but, rather, that all people shared the same destiny after death, regardless of the kind of life they had led. Souls would descend the nine layers of the underworld in an arduous four-year journey until eventually reaching extinction in the deepest part - Mictlan Opochcalocan. Mictlantecuhtli was particularly worshipped in the Aztec month of Tititl where, at the temple of Tlalxicco, an impersonator of the god was sacrificed and incense was burned in his honour.

Representation in Art

Mictlantecuhtli is usually portrayed in art as a skeleton or covered in bones with red spots representing blood. He may also wear a skull mask, bone ear plugs, a costume of owl feathers and even a necklace of eyeballs. He has curly black hair and powerful eyes which allow him to penetrate the gloom of the underworld. On occasion he can be wearing clothes and a conical hat made from bark-paper.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

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