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Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization.

Chavin de Huantar is a fascinating archaeological site. Situated in a picturesque locale against the eastern face of the Peruvian Andes in a verdant valley framed by two small rivers, Chavin is impressive. The stone architecture is even more spectacular than the environs: the building's exterior is ornamented with the visages of aged humans and monstrous animals. Its interior is a warren of shafts and galleries. In one a 12ft column of white granite carved in the form of mythical beast snarls into the darkness. Even today, almost 3000 years after its construction, the site has the aura of a Mecca or a Camelot. Contributing to this is the possibility of its being the font of Andean civilization -- although this idea has its detractors as well as its proponents. Over the years, Chavin has lured pilgrims, conquerors, tourists and scholars. One scholar who has been drawn to Chavin de Huantar is Yale University archaeologist Richard Burger. In his new book he examines the position of Chavin in the development of Andean civilization.

Chavin culture, along with its antecedents, has been the focus of Burger's research and writing for two decades. This recent publication is his most ambitious to date. Few scholars would have attempted the enormous undertaking of synthesizing the vast quantity of data necessary to write a volume of this nature; fewer still could have accomplished the task. Thoughtfully organized, lucidly written and well illustrated, the new book centralizes most of Burger's critically important scholarship on Chavin.

Here, the author brings together four themes he has promulgated before, all focusing on what Chavin de Huantar was, how it came into being and how long a shadow it cast. The first of these themes is that -- in many cases -- the elaborate religious iconography which typifies Chavin art pre-dates the 900 BC settlement of the site. Second, he stresses that in a religio-architectural sense Chavin de Huantar was a synthesis of exotic concepts. Third, Burger proposes that Chavin 'art' in other locales bespeaks an antecedent to the 16th-century politico-familial oracle encountered by the Spanish conquerors of Peru. Finally, the author stresses the viability of the contested 'Chavin horizon' concept.

The quality of a scholarly book may be judged both by the amount of information it provides and by the debate it stimulates. This publication can be counted a success on both fronts because, while the four themes fold together into a single thesis, Andeanists are likely to deliberate them selectively. Specific points of controversy are discussed below.

The religious tradition that characterizes Chavin culture is made manifest through a highly ornate and esoteric art style: multiple ranged mouths, eccentric eyes and serpent bodies festoon Chavin images in all media. However, such conceits also characterize the religious art of several coastal cultures, many of which are older than Chavin. Burger's important excavations at Chavin de Huantar in the late 1970s produced a suite of reliable radiocarbon measurements finally establishing its settlement date; his tabulation of dates from sites yielding similar art demonstrated their temporal relationship with Chavin. It followed that the builders of Chavin de Huantar did not create their culture sui generis, but drew upon a long tradition of design and construction. It is a case well made. Somewhat less convincing is that Chavin de Huantar art was disseminated to other communities which adopted the foreign iconography, thus producing the 'Chavin horizon'. What weakens his thesis here is the discrepancy of the data: strong for the south coast, much less so for elsewhere. Despite the imbalance, Burger sets forth his bold idea that the communities adopting Chavin religion did so in alliances whereby they metaphorically became the 'wives' or 'children' of Chavin de Huantar. While space here does not permit a detailed critique of the idea, it may be said that -- although intriguing -- its physical support evidence is slim. A major question is why Chavin de Huantar came into existence where and in the form it did. Burger's explanation that its montane locus at a prominent juncture between a major route west to the coast and one east into the tropics made it an ideal trade nexus is a wholly believable one. However, the statement 'that the Chavin cult was created by fusing exotic tropical forest with coastal elements to forge a unique local highland tradition' suggests an intentional selection of specific religious elements from eclectic sources. But who did the selecting, and how were the prototypes known to the selectors? Here, Burger leaves the reader guessing, apparently having abandoned his earlier hypothesis of a messianic movement (1988) which did offer a partial explanation for the founding of Chavin de Huantar. Moreover, although Burger favours a tropical iconographic input, he does state (in passing) that the imagery in question could have had other derivations.

Another point of contention is Burger's matter-of-fact statement that the deity carved on the Lanzon in Chavin's oldest structure is the same one carved on the much later Raimondi Stone. This is a new and potentially fascinating idea because it challenges the long-held view of the rationale for the site's growth. It is an idea that needs to be well argued in a detailed manner. Some Andeanists will surely question his identification of Chavin de Huantar as so fundamentally different from its immediate antecedents (the placement of which Burger has documented beautifully) that it served as the fountainhead for Andean civilization. Early on, Burger discusses how Chavin de Huantar's initial excavator erroneously concluded that the site's religious art motifs had disseminated throughout the region, thus initiating civilization in Andean South America. Somewhat confusingly, both the book's title and its final chapters indicate that Burger is essentially in accord with that interpretation. Finally, in concluding this tour-de-force of South America's presumed first civilization, the author reviews the models that have been proposed to account for the rise of civilization throughout the world. It seems odd that, at this juncture, he does not mention the 'Maritime Foundation' model developed by Michael Moseley and his associates which, for many years, has sought to explain the rise of Andean civilization specifically. Instead, Burger proposes his own model, one the reader has seen building throughout the volume: that the impetus for the origins of Andean civilization (Chavin) was the integrated socio-economies of the highlands and the coast, coupled with religious coercion. His model is an intriguing one, but in order to prove more satisfying that the Maritime Foundation alternative, it needs to be bolstered by pragmatic examples of exactly how religious iconography could have brought about specific changes in the social structure which gave rise to Chavin 'civilization'. Its controversial elements notwithstanding, Richard Burger's Chavin and the origins of Andean civilization is likely to stand as the definitive treatment of the subject for a long while.

A. CORDY-COLLINS Anthropology Department, University of San Diego


BURGER, R.L. 1988. Unity and heterogeneity within the Chavin horizon, in Richard Keatinge (ed.), Peruvian prehistory: 99-144. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Author:Cordy-Collins, A.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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