Archaeologists have revealed a complex of passageways and galleries hidden deep within the ancient temple complex of Chavín de Huántar in the Peruvian Andes. Researchers believe the network of chambers and galleries was used in religious rituals, possibly involving psychedelic drugs.
This is the first time in about 3,000 years that these particular hidden structures have been explored; some of the dark, secluded chambers may have been used for sensory deprivation, while some of the larger galleries appear to have been used for idol worship, said John Rick, a Stanford University archaeologist leading the research.
“These are stone-lined passages, corridors, rooms, cells and niches, large enough to walk through, covered with stone beams,” he told Live Science in an email. “Galleries have a diversity of functions from what we can tell, [but] all are related to ritual activity.”
Related: Lasers Reveal a ‘Lost’ Pre-Hispanic Civilization Deep in the Amazon
Rick explained that the newly discovered passageways weren’t strictly tunnels, as they weren’t dug into the ground. Instead, they were deliberately built inside the mass of the enormous temple complex as it was built in stages between 1200 BC and 200 BC.
Some of the chambers appear to have originally been near-surface rooms that were kept accessible for some time with sturdy roofs and extended entrance passageways, he said. The passages are up to 300 feet (100 meters) long, but many twist, with right-angled corners and several levels.
A total of 36 galleries and their associated passageways have now been uncovered in Chavín de Huántar over 15 years of excavations, but this latest network was uncovered only a few years ago and only explored this year, said Rick.
Archaeologists believe Chavín de Huántar was a religious center for the mysterious Chavín people, who lived in northern and central what is now Peru between 3,200 and 2,200 years ago. according to Encyclopedia Britannica (opens in a new tab). The complex sits about 270 miles (430 kilometers) north of Lima, in a mountain valley over 10,000 feet (3,000 m), and it is the largest of several Chavín religious sites found so far. now.
Rick said the final passages deep in the complex were first detected in 2019 and were initially explored with a remote-controlled camera.
COVID-19[feminine] restrictions prevented further exploration until May this year, when archaeologists were able to enter the passages for the first time since they were apparently sealed some 3,000 years ago, he said declared.
The passageways led to a main gallery which contained two large stone ritual bowls, one of them decorated with the symbolic head and wings of a condor, a large Andean bird of prey. The gallery is now known as the Condor Gallery.
“We’ve now documented the gallery, but there’s still a lot to explore,” Rick said. “Major excavations will begin next year.”
He added that the gallery was deeper than most previously found and appeared to be older. “The Condor Gallery shows many sources of evidence indicating an age of at least 3,000 years since the gallery was built, and probably since it was officially sealed,” Rick said.
Little is known about the beliefs of Chavín, but the newly discovered passageways and gallery appear to have had a religious purpose, like other chambers found in the past at Chavín de Huántar. “Galleries have a diversity of functions, from what we can tell,” Rick said.
They include several small chambers that could have been used for sensory deprivation or ritual visual, auditory and tactile disorientation, he said. Other rooms were used for worship or to store ritual material, including the famous ornamental trumpets made from giant conch shells (opens in a new tab) which were discovered in large numbers in Chavín de Huántar and which appear to have been used in ceremonies there, he said.
While some passages and galleries have been discovered at religious sites of similar age in the Andes, they are generally much smaller and simpler – “nothing like the profusion found at Chavín”, Rick said.
“The most similar passages in the New World might be the caves beneath the Teotihuacan pyramids in central Mexico, but the differences are still stark,” Rick said. “Chavín is indeed unique in the number and nature of the galleries.”
Anthropologist and archaeologist Richard Burger, an expert on South American prehistory at Yale University who was not involved in the latest research at Chavín de Huántar, said the two bowls in the Condor Gallery were likely mortars used to grind psychedelic drugs for religious ceremonies.
“There was a tradition in Chavín of inhaling hallucinogenic snuff,” he told Live Science. It is argued (opens in a new tab) that it was made from pods of the vilca tree, which contain a powerful hallucinogenic substance that includes dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.
University of Florida anthropologist Dan Contreras, who was not involved in the discovery but worked with Rick at Chavín de Huántar, said the remaining tunnels provide a rare opportunity for archaeologists to study passages with new techniques.
While the Chavín temple complex included several sealed networks of passageways, “this is one that has remained entirely unknown,” he said. “Until now, not only had it not been seized there, no one even knew it was there.”
Many passages appear to have originally been near the surface, but were sealed off as the complex was built higher over the centuries, he said. One of the most famous is a gallery with a stone monolith near its center.
“There is a compelling argument that this was originally an open plaza,” Contreras said. “Then, as the temple was built around it, they kept access to what had been a plaza, but was now a fully enclosed space.”
Originally posted on Live Science.