Author of the Month

Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay

A further clue to the culture of these Preceramic coastal sites is provided by Sechin, a complex a few centuries later than Caral (around 1700BC) and couple of river valleys to the north. Here, for the first time, the temple is adorned with figurative carvings. But if these are a clue, they’re an oblique one: graphic but inscrutable representations carved in relief on stone blocks. Most are of human forms, some of them dismembered, but their most distinctive motif is wavy trail lines, often ending in finger-like tips, emanating from various parts of the bodies. Some of these seem to be intestines, and some emerge from the mouths of the carvings, but others coil from heads, hands and ears, suggesting they aren’t literal representations of blood, guts or bodily fluids. Their significance remains disputed. Early interpretations of them tended to claim that they were savage warrior figures commemorating tribal battles, victories and annihilated populations, but many of the figures are hard to fit into such a scheme. Recent interpretations, by contrast, have tended to focus on visionary, perhaps shamanic states, just as the Palaeolithic cave art of Europe is now increasingly interpreted not as realistic representations of ‘hunting scenes’ but of an imaginal dreamtime previously visited in a heightened state of consciousness – see, for example, David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave (Thames & Hudson 2002). Within this reading, the numinous swirls and haloes would commemorate not military victories but the mysteries which the ceremony at Sechin engendered.

There’s circumstantial evidence for interpolating the use of plant drugs into this ceremonial world. Part of this comes from Chavín, where the same structures would emerge later with images of these plants explicitly represented. Part of it comes from nearby archaeological finds of chewed coca leaf quids and rolls of plant material which may be cored, skinned and dried San Pedro cactus. The coca, along with other plant remains, implies a trade network which connected the coast and the mountains – a symbiosis which would later characterise the Chavín culture. Coca doesn’t grow on the coast, but at an altitude of 1000-2000m up the mountain valleys; San Pedro begins to colonise the steep mountain cliffs at the upper end of this belt, continuing up to 3000m. Given that more bulky mountain plant foodstuffs were being supplied to the barren desert coast two or three days’ journey away, and dried and salted fish traded in return, fresh or dried San Pedro could have been brought down in quantity, as it still is today.

Chavín culture, when it emerged, would testify to the existence of such cross-cultural contact, and more besides. Yet Chavín wasn’t the first ceremonial centre in the mountains. The Preceramic site of Kotosh, a hundred miles away from it across the inland ranges, dates from a similar period to Sechin, and its remains show similar structures: altar-like platforms around stone-enclosed fire pits, stacked on top of each other through several layers of occupation. One gnomic Preceramic symbol also survives: a moulded mud-brick relief of a pair of crossed hands, now housed in the national museum in Lima. Centuries before Chavín, perhaps as early as 2000BC, Kotosh demonstrates that trade links between the mountains and the coast had also generated some commonality of worship.

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