Archaeology can be a challenging field — after all, it’s not easy to interpret the past based on the material culture left behind by long-gone groups. But this social science continues to fascinate academics and travelers alike, and there is no other country with more interesting archaeological offerings than Peru.
Here are just a few of Peru’s most noteworthy archaeological sites.
As the most famous of all Peruvian sites, Machu Picchu draws roughly a million visitors every year. After all, it’s one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
A vast series of Machu Picchu excavations has uncovered a variety of findings. Based on the studies of the area’s 200 structures, which are divided into two distinct areas, we know that royals, priests, and farmers all visited the site. In fact, today’s best theory posits that Machu Picchu was a royal estate for religious worship, where year-round caretakers lived and farmed.
But the real miracle of Machu Picchu might have been the on-site engineering, which was nothing short of ingenious. Although the builders didn’t use mortar, the structures are anti-seismic, and the stones fit together so well that not even a knife can be inserted between them.
What’s more, man-made canals carry spring water from the source to Machu Picchu itself, where ancient residents would have collected it from their choice of 16 different fountains. (The first, which delivered the purest water, was located directly outside the emperor’s residence.)
Understandably, it’s harder to infer specifics about the Incas’ spiritual life than their technology, so archaeologists are still stumped on the significance of many structures. Machu Picchu is home to several temples — the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the Principal Temple, among others — but we still have only a vague idea as to what the Incas believed.
But perhaps the largest remaining mystery of Machu Picchu is one of its large carved stones, also known as the Intihuatana. Since it’s prominently situated in the plaza, many archaeologists have hypothesized that the Intihuatana served as a sundial or calendar of some sort — but no one really knows if, when, or how it was a part of ritual life. Those are questions that future archaeologists will have to answer!
Fast facts: The Incas built Machu Picchu in the mid-1400s. The site is located about 46 miles northwest of Cuzco.
You’ve seen aerial photos of these giant designs scratched into the desert floor — some are abstract, others are more recognizable, but all were painstakingly planned hundreds of years ago.
Officially categorized as geoglyphs, the Nazca lines are mind-boggling. More than 300 designs decorate the barren desert landscape of southern Peru, but it’s difficult to notice their intricate patterns without taking to the skies. (That’s why no one knew much about the lines until American scholar Paul Kosok spotted them from a plane in 1941.)
From 30-mile straight lines to zoomorphic images (like hummingbirds, spiders, whales, monkeys, and lizards), the Nazca lines include a variety of designs that were all created the same way. The artists removed a shallow layer of rocks from specific areas of the ground to make a negative image on the desert floor, and since there’s almost no rainfall or wind in the area, the designs have never buckled to erosion.
When it comes to determining the purpose of the Nazca lines, archaeologists have divided opinions. Some claim that groups must have used them for astronomical or calendrical purposes, while others believe that the lines were ritual sites where people asked their gods for rainfall.
Regardless of what the designs were used for, there’s no denying that they’re impressive!
Fast facts: Archaeologists have come up with several possible creation dates for the lines, ranging from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. This mysterious site is located roughly 200 miles southeast of Lima.
Even though it’s a lesser-known site, the Kuélap Archaeological Complex is remarkable. Its fortress — a massive defensive structure that contains 420 circular stone buildings within its walls — is the site’s centerpiece, although there are a few other important sectors as well.
Thanks to the presence of hearths, mortars and pestles, pottery, and metal tools, archaeologists know that the circular buildings inside the fortress were houses. Interestingly enough, archaeologists have even found bodies buried beneath their floors, and there are tombs located outside the houses, too.
Beneath a large circular platform in the fortress, archaeologists have also discovered skeletal remains that show telltale signs of violence. Taking all of this and the evidence of a huge on-site fire into account, experts believe that some sort of bloody event occurred between the local people and Spanish conquistadors.
But for many travelers, the highlight of visiting Kuélap is seeing its main temple, commonly referred to as El Tintero, or the Inkwell. It’s shaped like an inverted cone, with walls protruding farther at the top than at the bottom, and evidence suggests that the temple was used for both burial ceremonies and ritual offerings.
If you’d like to see a monumental site built by a relatively unknown culture, then Kuélap is the place for you!
Fast facts: The Chachapoya people occupied Kuélap from 500 to 1570 A.D. The site is located about 45 miles from Chachapoyas.
Chan Chan is another famously obscure site. Even though the adobe city was a cultural hub just a few centuries ago, it would look about as natural on a “Star Wars” set as does in Peru. As the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, Chan Chan is set apart by its urban planning, with its city center divided into nine distinct zones called “citadels.”
High stone walls mark the boundaries of the citadels, each of which contain temples, homes, storehouses, reservoirs, and open spaces. The citadel walls are highly decorated with abstract designs, as well as animal and humanoid figures.
Outside the citadels, the Chimu people built a few production sectors and monuments, while also developing the land for agricultural purposes. Their complex hydraulics system brought water into the city from a distant source, and their irrigation techniques later inspired Inca engineers.
Today, climate change poses a major threat to Chan Chan’s survival. The local environment was much drier when it was built, and the adobe structures just aren’t designed to withstand heavy rains. Although archaeologists are doing their best to preserve the site, they might be fighting a losing battle. So, if you’d like to see Chan Chan, it’s better to go before it disintegrates further.
Fast facts: The Chimu people built Chan Chan as their capital and occupied the site until 1470 A.D., when they were conquered by the Incas. Chan Chan is located just outside of Trujillo.
Cover photo by Daniel Maza