We can learn a lot about a civilization from how it treated its dead. The Nazca of Peru, for example, often carried their dead to Cahuachi, an important religious center, to be buried. Even though the Nazca revered their dead, they often mutilated the bodies and severed the head. Archaeological evidence of this rather distressing practice has taught us a lot about the Nazca civilization and its religion. Cahuachi has also shown us that the Nazca were skilled artists and potters who believed in unification through individualism. What else can we learn from Cahuachi?
The ancient, abandoned ruins of Cahuachi, necropolis of the Nazca. ( rpbmedia / Adobe Stock)
What is Cahuachi?
Cahuachi was the ceremonial center of Nazca culture . As the most important sacred site the Nazca people had, Cahuachi rose to greatness between 200 BC and 600 AD. The site was predominantly used for harvest festivals, ancestor worship, and burials.
The site is made up of a series of massive ceremonial mounds and plazas. Cahuachi has been a major gift to historians wishing to study Nazca culture, as it is overflowing with everything from Nazca mummies to textiles and even trophy heads!
The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Cahuachi spreads out of half a square mile (1.5 square kilometers), including numerous large-scale burial mounds ( Overflightstock / Adobe Stock)
Where is Cahuachi?
Cahuachi can be found in the coastal area of the central Andes Mountains in Peru. If one follows the Nazca Valley until the Nazca River begins to flow underground, then they have found Cahuachi.
The location was chosen because the water tables along this southern bank of the Nazca River tended to survive even the worst of droughts. The Nazca considered this as a sign that the site was sacred, or huaca. This abundance of water was managed through an ingenious series of aqueducts and cisterns . These featured terraced entrances that meant the surrounding area was kept irrigated.
The water management system of the Nazca around Cahuachi was impressive. ( Javarman / Adobe Stock)
The Nazca highlighted that this area was sacred by placing geoglyphs, large designs carved into the landscape, all over the desert floor surrounding the site. Cahuachi was linked to Ventilla, another major Nazca religious center, by a sacred road that enabled safe passage through the San Jose desert.
Cahuachi was strictly a religious site, and there is no archaeological evidence, like ancient trash or everyday pottery, to show that the site ever featured a dedicated residential area. Instead, it seems most likely that pilgrims only made very short visits to the site and probably slept in tents.
The only buildings that can be found at the site appear to have been used as storage and workshops. These would have been used in relation to the religious activities being carried out at the site.
Large plazas can also be found at the site, indicating large gatherings were hosted at Cahuachi. The most expansive plaza is 154 by 246 feet (47 by 75 meters), indicating rather large crowds. The remains of wooden posts found at the site, as well as holes in the floors of the plazas, indicate that huge canopies were erected to keep worshippers cool and dry.
Who Were the Nazca?
The Nazca civilization flourished between 200 BC and 600 AD, corresponding with what we know about Cahuachi. Their name comes from the fact they predominantly settled in the Nazca River Valley along the southern coast of Peru.
Nazca civilization was made up of a series of chiefdoms that usually acted separately, but would occasionally unite to act in unison for mutual benefit. It was a series of self-governing villages that shared one culture. Nazca settlements feature the same styles of architecture and artwork, but there is no sign of uniform town planning or centralization of power.
The Nazca was a relatively small civilization, most likely maxing out at about 25,000 people spread out across various villages. Despite this small population, the Nazca earned themselves a reputation for great artistry and pottery. Much of this is evident at Cahuachi.
As they lived in an area famed for its arid and often inhospitable environment, it is not surprising that the Nazca religion was focused heavily on nature and fertility. Nazca artwork often depicts powerful, animalistic gods who were given offerings by the Nazca in return for bountiful harvests.
The Nazca thrived for centuries, but began to decline from 500 AD onwards. By 750 AD, the civilization had fallen completely. It is widely believed the final nail in the coffin for the Nazca was a massive flood caused by an El Niño. It is believed that the fact that the Nazca had cut down so many trees to make room for heavy agriculture exacerbated the flood.
The Nazca Lines
Today, the Nazca are most famous for the Nazca lines that surround Cahuachi, rather than Cahuachi itself. The lines are a group of geoglyphs that were created between 500 BC and 500 AD. They were made by people making incisions into the desert floor that were then filled with colored dirt and left exposed.
One of the famous Nazca lines near Cahuachi, featuring a hummingbird design (Diego Delsa / CC BY SA )
While most are visible from the ground, they are most impressive when seen from the air. The shapes made by the lines vary in design, ranging from simple geometric shapes to over seventy that resemble plants and animals. Due to the area’s arid conditions, most of the Nazca lines are still intact, and in 1994 they were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
Cahuachi’s Famous Burial Mounds
By far the most impressive feature at Cahuachi is the collection of forty burial mounds built from earth and adobe bricks. The earliest mounds have been dated to around 100 BC, while the last addition seems to have been built around 550 AD. This fits the general period that the Nazca civilization was active.
The mounds were used for burials for family and kin groups. Each mound contains the tombs of specific groups. This was standard practice for the Nazca in all walks of life. They believed in shared cultural practices which were then carried out on an individual basis. There was no interference or influence from a larger political power, such as a king or emperor.
Most Andean cultures carried out ancestor worship. As such, it is likely that families often carried out pilgrimages to Cahuachi so that they could reopen the family tomb to add new mummies of the recently deceased.
Cahuachi seems to have exclusively been a ceremonial and burial site. It is likely journeys were made to add recently deceased relatives to family burial tombs (Bruno Girin / CC BY SA 2.0 )
The largest mound, dubbed the Great Temple, measures 98 feet (30 meters) tall. It is made up of six or seven terraces, built from earth and set on top of a hill. Inside, it features the usual assortment of tombs, as well as a series of smaller chambers. These chambers were filled with clay panpipes, which imply that music was an important part of Nazca burial ceremonies. Finally, the Great Temple features a large central altar surrounded by columns that support the roof. The walls of these chambers are decorated with images of panpipes and faces with shining rays.
Important Archaeological Finds at Cahuachi
Sadly, looting has been a major problem at Cahuachi, and many of the tombs have been stripped clean. Luckily, some tombs have been largely left alone, meaning archaeologists have managed to find some intact burials.
These intact burials have revealed mummies wrapped in fine cloth. The mummies of men, women, and children have been found, and some of them show signs of ritual sacrifice. These are mummies of Nazca people, not captured enemies, whose bodies feature typical signs of Andean burials. To today’s readers, these burial practices can seem a little brutal.
For example, the Nazca did not always bury bodies whole. Several partial burials have been found, where the body is dismembered and the body parts are individually wrapped and placed into the grave separately. Often, the head is missing completely and has been replaced with a head jar. This is a ceramic jar depicting a painted head, with trees sprouting from it.
Examples of the Cahuachi head jars (Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert Thibault / CC BY SA 2.0 )
The Nazca are also known for their use of trophy heads . Many of these have been found at Cahuachi. These are severed heads which then had their skulls pierced, tongues removed and placed in a pouch, excrement put in the mouth, and eyes and lips sealed with the spines of a cactus. For a long time, it was believed these trophy heads were taken from fallen enemies.
One of the trophy heads recovered from Cahuachi ( Public Domain )
While at least some trophy heads found in the Nazca Valley are indeed from fallen enemies, it is likely the heads found at Cahuachi are also from human sacrifices . Animal remains at the site imply animal sacrifice was also a feature of the ceremonies carried out at Cahuachi.
Some of the mummified heads found at Cahuachi (Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert Thibault / CC BY SA 2.0 )
Not all the archaeological finds have been so macabre, however. Many fine examples of Nazca pottery have been unearthed. The pottery found at Nazca tends to be of a higher quality than the pottery used for daily use. Much of this pottery is painted with animals, especially money birds, cats, and lizards.
Nazca pottery showing a warrior holding a severed human head ( Public Domain )
Some of the artwork is a little more disturbing, human-animal hybrids and spiders with human faces are a common motif. Large ceramic jars have also been found stuffed with textiles. The images woven into or painted onto these pieces of cloth often mirror the images found on the pottery, as well as scenes of plentiful harvests and farmland. Just in case these scenes sounded too idyllic, many of these textiles feature borders depicting staring human skulls.
Two textile finds caught archaeologists’ eyes. One is a single piece of cloth that is 12 feet (7 meters) by 197 feet (60 meters). The other is a collection of fifty women’s wrap dresses. Each dress is decorated with images of hummingbirds, which can also be found in Cahuachi’s surrounding geoglyphs.
It is believed many of these textiles were woven on-site. Excavations have revealed a workshop at Cahuachi full of spindles, dyes, cotton threads, and looms. While Cahuachi was not necessarily a trade hub as such, it is believed the site saw a healthy trade in textiles.
Fragment of a Nazca textile, circa 100-300 AD ( Public Domain )
Abandonment and Decline of Cahuachi
Unlike many ancient sites, Cahuachi did not fall out of use and into disrepair. Instead, it seems to have been actively abandoned. This seems odd for a site that was so central to Nazca culture.
Cahuachi was abandoned around the mid-6th century AD. As no written records have been found at the site, historians have been left to guess as to why the site was abandoned.
Our best bet is that climate change probably played an important role. As the area became more arid, the Nazca people probably took it as a sign from the gods that they had done something wrong. When the fateful flood hit that wiped out many Nazca villages, the Nazca likely believed the gods had truly abandoned them.
This theory is supported by the fact that, as Cahuachi was being abandoned, the number of geoglyphs being created increased. This has been taken as a sign that the Nazca were begging their gods for divine help.
We know that the abandonment of Cahuachi was planned because the burial mounds were actively covered with earth. Not long after the abandonment of Cahuachi, the Nazca people themselves disappeared. Local peoples continued to visit Cahuachi to give offerings and bury their dead, but the golden days of Cahuachi were well behind it by this time.
Even though archaeologists have been excavating Cahuachi since 1926, we still have a lot of questions with no answers. The lack of a written Nazca record, combined with centuries of looting, means we may never get those answers.
What we do know paints an image of a civilization very different from ours. Completely decentralized yet also unified under one set of beliefs and social customs. Some Nazca customs may seem brutal, but Cahuachi shows us that they had an artistic side. Their use of trophy heads may make them sound like savages; however, their artwork shows them to be anything but.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Cahuachi and the Nazca comes from their downfall. In the end, they were almost completely wiped out by a devastating flood, which was made worse by their deforestation of the Prosopis pallida trees vital to their local ecosystem.
The Nazca felt their gods had left them to die, ignoring the civilization’s desperate pleas for help. The Nazca ultimately abandoned Cahuachi, and the civilization fell soon after. If a civilization that worshiped nature could be destroyed by it, maybe we should be a little bit more careful.
Top Image: Cahuachi pyramid at Nazca, Peru. Source: Daniel Prudek /Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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