You are here:Home/News/ 2018 Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium

2018 Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium

Posted On October 24, 2018 | 09:36 am | by Press | Permalink

Held October 5 and 6, the annual Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium, “Reconsidering the Chavín Phenomenon in the 21st Century,” was organized by Richard Burger (Yale University) and Jason Nesbitt (Tulane University), with support from Colin McEwan and Adrianne Varitimidis. The conference was designed to provide a comprehensive synthesis of the pan-regional Chavín phenomenon based on data from recent archaeological investigation at late Initial Period and Early Horizon civic-ceremonial centers and related sites. Building on a surge of archaeological research over the last 15 years, the symposium consisted of a series of talks covering different geographical areas on the coast, highlands, and ceja de selva (cloud forest) of Peru. Each presentation examined themes central to understanding the Chavín phenomenon at local, regional, and interregional levels. Some of the talks included new discoveries such as unknown subterranean galleries at Chavín de Huántar, a Manchay-style polychrome frieze decorating a buried plaza at Cardal, and a sunken circular plaza on the summit at Campanayuq Rumi.

Map of Peru
Map of Peru, showing location of Early Horizon archaeological sites. Drawing by George Lau.
Recent research has generated a wealth of new data and created opportunities for a critical reassessment of models of interregional interaction during the late second and early first millennia BCE. Large-scale horizontal excavations have documented the variability in the layouts of many well-known but poorly understood public centers. Calibrated radiocarbon dates from a host of sites have resolved many of the persistent chronological issues and confirmed that the Chavín phenomenon was largely limited to 1000–500 cal BCE. Advances in sourcing raw materials such as obsidian, cinnabar, and pottery (neutron activation, for example) have made it possible to reconstruct long-distance patterns of exchange with increasing confidence. With this new information, it has become possible to distinguish between a pan-regional Chavín sphere of interaction and more localized spheres of interaction, such as those in the northern highlands and the south-central highlands. In some areas, these regional spheres appear to have predated the much larger Chavín sphere.  

Many of the talks took a bottom-up approach to the Chavín phenomenon, viewing these cultural transformations from the perspective of peripheral zones, such as Huancavelica and Ayacucho, and emphasizing the variability between them and the impact on daily life. The groups associated with these regional centers were presented as having agency that resulted in distinctive responses to the expanding Chavín phenomenon. In some cases, as seen in the presentation on the Nepeña Valley, alternative patterns of public practice were developed as an alternative to Chavín. In Nepeña, large centers featuring multiple plazas and environments designed for feasting came to replace the long-standing pattern of pyramid complexes decorated with religious iconography. Some areas, such as the northern ceja de selva, were shown to have been characterized by radically different responses to the Chavín phenomenon despite relative proximity to each other. In at least one case, that of the Lurin Valley of the Central Coast, incorporation into the Chavín sphere of interaction did not result in increasing prosperity or complexity and did not reverse the widespread sociopolitical collapse at the end of the Initial Period (ca. 900 BCE). It did, however, stimulate a new emphasis on rituals of ancestor veneration. The emphasis on cultural variability and agency in so many of the presentations at the symposium stood in sharp contrast to traditional treatments of Chavín. Like the Dumbarton Oaks Chavín Conference of 1968, this symposium constituted a benchmark in the investigation of one of the first civilizations to emerge in Latin America.

Throughout the conference, there appeared to be a consensus that the ascendancy of Chavín de Huántar cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. During the first half of the first millennium BCE when Chavín de Huántar was prospering, contemporary cultures of the Peruvian coast, highlands, ceja de selva, and tropical forest regions also experienced socioeconomic, technological, and religious transformations. The synchronicity of these widespread changes coupled with intrusive Chavín material culture and iconography at distant centers suggests that Chavín de Huántar influenced a large region through the expansion of religious ideology and intensified long-distance interaction.