Just a few weeks ago, we took you on a ride to Caral, the oldest ancient city of all of the Americas. Well this time, we are going to visit their successors, the Vichama civilization. The site is located in present-day Huaura province which is only two and a half hours from Lima and about one hour from Caral. We took a bus with Movilbus that took us straight to the site.
The Vichama site itself sits on roughly 136 hectares of land and there are 12 known mounds (large, medium, and small) that show evidence of domestic living and ceremonial imagery. It is only a couple of kilometers away from the ocean and is very impressive. They would have been around roughly the same years as Caral from 3000 BC to 1800 BC (also known as the Late Archaic period). This site was only found in 2007 by Peruvian anthropologist, Ruth Shady, and there still remains a lot to research about it.
Because this site flourished when Caral was succumbing, there are many similar techniques found at Vichama. I myself recognized the buildings and plazas to be quite similar to the naked eye and also they had similar narrow stairways and wall plaster. But what sets Vichama apart from Caral is their intricate sandstone murals which tell a strong story about who these people were.
The murals tell a story about famine and drought. We can see the men and women holding their mouths and stomachs while their ribs are visible, and eyes closed. These human figures stand 1.70 meters tall and there are still many of them left to be uncovered. But this specific mural does seem to represent a ritual that was happening during the drought (which the archaeologists at Vichama believe to have happened in the last 100 years of their time).
Above the human figures, there is a frog with human-like hands and a lightning bolt above it. We know that frogs represent water because they usually make lots of noise after rain. And the lightning bolt could represent the beginning of something. So, the two together may represent the beginning of the rainy season.
The COVID-19 protocols were similar to Caral. When we arrived, our temperature was taken and then we had to fill out a visitor logbook (name, age, nationality, etc.). We were kept in smaller groups and they even had designated circles to make sure you were standing apart from your group members when the tour guide was explaining certain features.
The tour guides themselves were archaeologists at the site. I was with Alonso who was a superb tour guide and is currently doing his own investigations into burials on the site.
Alonso and I were able to chat more about the current investigations happening as he knew that I was also an archaeologist. He explained to me that there are three burials found, close to the plaza, that have the human figurine carvings. They were all in a flexed (or fetal) position wrapped in textiles. This is a very common burial position in ancient Peru but to me it’s incredible that there is evidence that this started in the earliest days of ancient Peru.
Just like Caral, the Vichama did not create any ceramics, lithics or metals. However, they did create many head carvings from clay and instruments made from animal bones. There is still much to research about the rituals that they had and the direct correlation between the drought and ceremonies.
If you do plan to visit this area, I highly recommend making an effort to visit all three of Caral, Aspero, and Vichama as they are all relatively close to each other. The town, Huaura, has a few restaurants and cafes to explore. We went to Kian Café for breakfast and they had incredible tamales and makis (as it’s an Asian fusion café). Also, in the Plaza de Armas of Huaura, you will see the famous Balcon de Huaura. It’s a balcony where in 1820, San Martin declared Peru as an independent country.
Although there is still much to learn about the Vichama, go see it for yourself! You will likely be able to see archaeologists uncovering the mounds in front of your eyes when you go. The tour guides can offer you many interpretations of the site too so don’t be shy to ask them. There is also a view-point where you can see the ecology of the site with the rivers and the ocean and also acts as an amazing photo backdrop.
All photos: Marco Simola
Dawn Brookes is an archaeologist from Alberta, Canada who has been involved with archaeological projects in Peru since 2014. Today she lives in Lima and is completing her master’s in ancient Peruvian burials which will later turn into a PhD. Check out her Instagram here.