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Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay

It was only in 1972 that the most striking of these reliefs were uncovered, on faced slabs which line the oldest of the sunken plazas, running like a frieze around its circle at knee height. These figures are presumably from the site’s formative period; the most remarkable is a human figure in a state of feline transformation, bristling with jaws, claws and snakes, and clutching an unmistakable San Pedro cactus like a staff or spear. Beneath this figure – the ‘Chaman’, as he’s become informally known – runs a procession of jaguars carved in swirling lines, with other creatures, birds of prey and snakes, sometimes incorporated into the whorls of their tails.

These reliefs are all carved in profile, and all face towards the steps which lead up from the circular plaza to the old pyramid, at the top of which is the familiar altar-like platform. But at the back of this platform is something entirely unfamiliar: a pair of stone doorways disappearing into the darkness inside the pyramid itself. These lead via steps down into tunnels around six foot high and constructed, rather like Bronze Age long barrows, from huge granite slabs and lintels. The tunnels take sharp, maze-like, usually right-angled turns, apparently designed to disorient and cut out the daylight, zig-zagging into pitch blackness. Opening out from these subterranean corridors are dozens of rock-hewn side chambers, some large enough for half a dozen people, others seemingly for solitary confinement. There are niches hacked in some of the chamber walls which might have housed oil lamps, and lintels which extrude like hammock pegs. Running through the bewildering network of tunnels and chambers are smaller shafts, some of them air vents, others water ducts which allowed the nearby spring to gush and echo through this elaborately constructed underworld.

Right in the heart of the labyrinth is a stela carved in the early Chavín style, a clawed, fanged and rolling-eyed humanoid form, boxed inside a cramped cruciform chamber which rises to the top of the pyramid. The loose arrangement of stones in the roof above, which form a plug at the crown of the pyramid, have led to speculation that they might have been removable, allowing the Lanzon, as the carved stela is known, to point up like a needle to a gap of exposed sky. Other fragments of evidence from the site, such as a large boulder with seven sunken pits in the configuration of the Pleiades, suggest that an element of the Chavín ritual – perhaps, given the narrow confines around the Lanzon, a priestly rather than a public one – might have involved aligning the stela with astronomical events.

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