by O Books
visit the store
Peruvian Valley of the Pyramids
is rapidly becoming the capital of the pyramid world. Not only
does it have the oldest officially recorded pyramid in the world
(Caral), with each archaeologist’s spade dig, more pyramid
complexes are uncovered.
Near the city of Sipan is one of the major pyramid concentrations
of Southern America: the pyramids of Tucume, known as “the
Valley of the Pyramids”. The Lambayeque Valley is the largest
valley of the North Coast of Peru, located between the Pacific
Ocean and the Andes mountain range. It has no less than three
pyramid cities, which together have a stunning total of 250 pyramids.
The three cities were built in succession of each other, each
abandoned before a new one was built.
The first is known as Pampa Grande and was built between 600 and
750 AD. In 700 AD, the pyramid of Pampa Grande, known as Huaca
Fortaleza, was built, reaching fifty metres high, and measuring
200 metres in width. Though much of the structure remains intact,
visually, it is not all that impressive. The next complex was
that of Batan Grande, built between 750 and 1100 AD. The city
had 34 pyramids, including the Huaca de Oro (Pyramid of Gold),
in front of which a series of royal tombs were located. The pyramids
are now badly eroded, due to El Niño rains in 1982 and
1998. But the biggest destruction to the site was man-made when
in ca. 1100 AD, the pyramid was burnt and the town abandoned,
to be succeeded by Tucume, from 1100 AD until 1500 AD.
Tucume lies on the southern margin of the valley and is surrounded
by fertile agricultural land, thanks to the Taymi canal, which
brings water northwards from the Chancay River. The construction
of the 43 km long canal coincided with the settlement of Tucume,
around 1100 AD.
The 26 pyramids and mounds of Tucume are locally known as Purgatory.
The local shamans still invoke its power and of the gods that
once resided in these structures. Specifically, the gods lived
in the mountains, but the pyramids were seen as replica mountains,
in the hope of being able to work with the forces of nature. The
local shamans are also the record keepers of the legends, including
one legend recorded by Father Cabello de Balboa in 1586 AD. It
relates how Cala, a grandson of Naymlap, the founder of the Lambayeque
royal dynasty, declared that Tucume would become the new metropolis
for his people. Cala seems to have been an exile from Batan Grande.
there are 26 structures in total, most of the archaeological work
is focused on the three main structures: the Huaca Larga, Huaca
One and the U-shaped “Temple of the Sacred Stone”.
The Huaca Larga, or the Long Pyramid, is the longest adobe structure
known to date. It measures 700 metres in length, from the foot
of La Raya Mountain to the short, straight access ramp on the
north end. It is 280 metres wide, and thirty metres tall. Originally,
it was a freestanding platform, but it was remodelled into is
current shape by adding the step pyramid on top. Long corridors
and dividing walls partition the complex, and researchers have
identified a northern, possibly public, ceremonial area and a
southern area devoted to cooking and manufacturing.
All buildings of this period, which marks the Chimú domination
of the area, were painted in the colours red, white and black.
The walls were decorated, one mural depicting flying birds in
the “Temple of the Mythical Bird” stands out from
the rest. Apparently, the Chimú tried to convert Huaca
Larga into a structure that resembled the vast adobe city of Chan
Chan, found near Trujillo.
Tucume is now properly analysed, it went largely unrecognized
until Thor Heyerdahl’s interest was ignited by the complex
in 1988. Heyerdahl and his team interpreted the cultural significance
of their findings, the greater implications of the architectural
site, the fascinating pyramid structures, and impressive artefacts
uncovered. The most exciting discoveries are linked to Heyerdahl’s
inquiry regarding possible ocean travel and boatbuilding by early
inhabitants of Tucume. Among the finds were stunning friezes depicting
birdmen piloting reed boats amid anthropomorphic waves.
Thor Heyerdahl explored the pyramids of Tucume personally and
his team opened forty tombs. So many artefacts were uncovered
that a museum was built at Tucume. Four burial chambers were found
in the 600 meter long Huaca Larga pyramid. Inside these chambers,
the bodies of nineteen female weavers, between the ages of ten
and thirty and because of their ages assumed to have been sacrificed,
were found. These date from the Inca period (1470-1532 AD). The
weaving of delicate textiles, an activity that the Inca often
entrusted to consecrated women, was therefore practiced at Huaca
Larga and may well date back to what archaeologists have labelled
Chimu period (1100-1400 AD). It underlines that though archaeologists
and historians have neatly divided Peruvian history in various
“cultures”, the sites show continuity in use, with
one culture not abandoning a sacred site and constructing its
own, but merely “taking over” the management of the
Tucume, it would take about 2000 people per year to make bricks
for one pyramid. It would therefore take thousands of people to
complete one pyramid, but there are no less than 26 in total in
Tucume alone, and more than 200 across the entire valley! Pyramid
building would thus have been an all-consuming task for the people
of this valley.
It is also clear that the pyramids were built according to a strict
The pyramids were not tombs. The tops of most pyramids were flat
and there were either rooms in or along the path upwards. Some
of the rooms contained food remains, like llama and large fish,
traditionally assumed to be the food of the wealthy. There was
an oven with charcoal, all suggestive of the fact that people
lived here for long periods of times. On top of one pyramid, the
remains of a 35 year old man have been discovered. He wore jewellery
and a feather headdress, clearly a member of a governing elite,
either in a political and/or religious sense.
In a different room atop Huaca Larga, archaeologists discovered
three male burials, one of them of a mature, robust man with insignia,
suggesting he may have been the Inca governor of Tucume. Shortly
after these burials took place, all standing structures on Huaca
Larga were razed and huge fires were lit on top.
Oral history also recalls that enormous fires were lit by the
Spanish colonists to convince the local population that Tucume
was the gate to purgatory. As mentioned, Purgatorio (purgatory)
is still the name by which the local people refer to the complex
today. But despite this “Christian warning”, local
shaman healers (“curanderos”) continue to invoke the
power of Tucume and the central La Raya Mountain in their rituals,
assisted by shamanic techniques and the psychoactive San Pedro
cactus, holding weekly rituals which researchers believe have
been going on since Inca times – if not before.
Like the Cerra Blanco hill at the Chan Chan complex, the Cerra
La Raya forms the focus of this site. All 26 structures are built
around this circular and cone-shaped hill, which rises 197 metres
high and which is also known as “El Purgatorio”, or
Cerro Purgatorio. Its official name, Cerra La Raya, is derived
from a ray fish that according to legend lives within the hill.
It is clear that this hill was held sacred – and continues
to be held sacred – and is at the core of why these structures
were erected here. Access to the sacred mountain was originally
restricted, as many cultures felt that humans should not enter
the domain of the “apu”, the mountain god, though
there is evidence of later Inca constructions on the hill, such
as an altar site. That the mountain of the gods was off-limit
to humans explains why the people “had” to build a
pyramid – a replica mountain which they were allowed to
fully understand the Tucume complex, we need to look at the “Temple
of the Sacred Stone”, which is a small, unpretentious, rectangular
U-shaped structure to the east of Huaca Larga. It is considered
a major temple that pilgrims had to pass by before entering the
complex. The walled roadway system of this section of the Lambayeque
valley leads straight to this temple, and then onwards to Huaca
Larga. The revered object of this temple appears to have been
a large, upright boulder in the middle of the one-room building:
the “sacred stone”. Archaeologists “officially”
do not know what it represents, but in my humble opinion, it represents
the “navel of the world”, identifying this site as
a sacred centre. Such navel stones have been found in various
religious centres throughout the ancient world, with the navel
stone of Delphi probably the most famous example. As the Cerra
La Raya was off-limits for humans, the “sacred stone”
was used as the mountain’s physical presence in the sacred
precinct, the only part of the apu that they were allowed to come
close to, if not touch. The small “Piedra Sagrada”
represented the larger omphalos of “Cerro Purgatorio”.
The identification of the site and the mountain with Purgatory
is therefore probably not a coincidence. The Spanish Conquistadors
probably understood the local rituals and compared them with their
own Christian upbringing. Purgatory and fire go hand in hand in
the Christian tradition, where purgatory is a state of existence,
the domain of the dead who were with sin and where the fire purges
the soul of its sin.
There are clear references to Purgatory in both the Old and the
New Testaments. In 2 Macchabees 12: 43, 46 the Jewish practice
of praying for the dead stated that “it is therefore a holy
and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed
from their sins.” The sins of these dead were removed by
what was believed to be a long, slow “simmer” of fire.
St Cyprian and St Augustine spoke of purification by fire, which
“purges away all sin by suffering.” Is it coincidence,
or design, that elsewhere, pyramids – by their very name
– are linked with fire? Let us also note that when one complex
was abandoned, the structures on top of the pyramids were burnt,
as if to literally obliterate the “sins” of a previous
era and move to a new temple complex.
These fires would have been so intense that they would have been
visible for miles, but there is no evidence of battles or invasions,
not even of an army. The people who built the pyramids did it
themselves and to themselves and archaeologists, like Bernarda
Delgado, the Tucume Archaeology Director, do not know the reason
why. Could it be that the reason was religious and linked with
the New Fire Ceremony? It is clear that the inhabitants of these
complexes burnt the top of the carefully built pyramids and then
left. “Purging” the old site may indeed be the true
answer to the burning of the complexes and the Spanish Conquistadors,
in identifying the site as purgatory, may have understood far
more than we would initially give them credit for.
of this article were excerpted from “The New Pyramid Age”.