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The Chavín de Huántar temple complex in Peru. Apollo /Wikimedia commons
The Chavín de Huántar temple complex in Peru. Apollo /Wikimedia commons

Archaeologists discover complex network of passages in 3,000-year-old Peruvian temple

The temple, called Chavin de Huantar, is located in the north-central Andes. It was once a religious and administrative center for pre-Hispanic people

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Long before the Inca Empire was founded, the Andes mountain range was a hotbed of peoples who climbed from one side of the mountains to the other, connecting the Pacific coast with the Amazon jungle through enormous efforts. The best example of that ingenuity is the Chavín de Huántar.

At 280 miles northwest of Lima and at an altitude of 10,498 feet above sea level, this dense network of roads and stone galleries was an administrative and religious center halfway between one side of the mountain range at least 1500 years before the Christian era. In 1985, it was declared a World Heritage Site, but a team of archeologists from Stanford University just discovered that it is much more complex than previously imagined.

A few years ago, the team decided to use small devices (such as cameras) to "map" those passageways that they were unable to explore in the traditional way. It was not until the first months of 2019 that the archaeologists found something interesting — a hidden network of passageways and other objects under one of the most important prehistoric temples in South America. 

The expectations were great, but before they could examine the new evidence, the pandemic closed the site and threatened to rebury the discovery in the heart of the mountain. They forgot all about it until a few weeks ago, when they finally announced the discovery of at least 35 connecting passageways that were built between the years 1,200 and 200 B.C.E. 

According to John Rick, the director of the research, these passageways may have been built before the temple's labyrinthine galleries.

In the same month of May, Rick and his team were able to access a narrow passage of about 40 centimeters in diameter and found two sculptural vessels (one of which featured the figure of a condor and weighed 17 kilos). These ceramics have "features of the earliest times ever seen," he told Reuters.

He also said that the environment was used only for ceremonies and represents a transitional space of time between the late pre-ceramic site of Caral, and the middle and late formative as it was known before Chavin.

"It is a gallery, but very different from another form of construction, it has features of earlier times that we have never seen in galleries," Rick told Andina.

Despite the archaeological work being paralyzed for almost three years by the pandemic, the ministry announced the discovery of the gallery and iconic pieces in its interior on Tuesday, June 14.

"A ceremonial stone bowl was found, on the top of which a three-dimensional carving of a condor's head can be seen. On the sides you can see its wings and on the opposite side of the head is engraved the tail of the bird," a statement reads.

In addition, the institution announced the discovery of "a simple stone vessel, with a refined rim." Both ceramics found measured 30 centimeters in diameter and 25 centimeters in height.

The 'Condor Gallery,' as the discovery has been called, isn’t the first underground architecture archaeologists unearthed at Chavín de Huántar. According to Ars Technica, the network of subterranean passages under the temples inspired a 1997 hostage rescue operation called Operation Chavín de Huántar. Members of a rebel group called the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement had taken several hundred hostages at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima. Peruvian special forces used tunnels dug from nearby buildings to access the ambassador’s residence.

Two decades later, in 2018, Rick and his colleagues rediscovered 35 more tunnels beneath the site.

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