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.
Without further ado, here are 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 scholarly surveys of the area’s 200 structures, which are divided into two distinct areas, we know that long-dead royals, priests, and farmers all visited and used 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 its on-site engineering, which was nothing short of ingenious. Although the builders didn’t use mortar, the structures are anti-seismic, and many of the stones fit together so well that it’s not possible to insert a knife between them.
What’s more, man-made canals carry spring water all the way from its 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 religious 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 actually believed.
The largest remaining mystery revolves around one of Machu Picchu’s large carved stones, 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 of the 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 create a negative image on the desert floor; since there’s almost no rainfall or wind in the area, the designs have never buckled to erosion.
Archaeologists have divided opinions on the purpose that the Nazca lines fulfill. Some claim that certain 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 how the designs were used, there’s no denying that they’re incredibly 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, containing 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, pottery, metal tools, and mortars and pestles, archaeologists know that the hundreds of circular buildings inside the fortress were homes. Interestingly enough, archaeologists have even found bodies buried beneath their floors, although there are tombs located outside the houses, too.
Beneath a large circular platform in the fortress, archaeologists have discovered skeletal remains that show telltale signs of violence. Taking all of this (and the evidence of a huge on-site fire) into account, the experts believe that some sort of bloody event occurred between the local people and Spanish conquistadors.
Archaeological mysteries aside, many visitors say that the highlight of visiting Kuélap is seeing its main temple: El Tintero, or the Inkwell. El Tintero is shaped like an inverted cone, with walls protruding farther at the top than at the bottom, and the 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 just as natural on a “Star Wars” set as it does in Peru. The largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, Chan Chan is notable for its extensive urban planning, with its city center divided into nine distinct zones called “citadels.”
High stone walls mark the boundaries of the nine citadels, each containing 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 brilliant irrigation techniques even inspired the Inca engineers who came after them.
Today, climate change poses a major threat to Chan Chan’s survival. The local environment was much drier when the site was built, and the adobe structures just aren’t designed to withstand heavy rains. Although archaeologists are doing their best to preserve Chan Chan, they might be fighting a losing battle — so if you’d like to see this site, it’s better to go sooner rather than later.
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