Pilgrimages and power in ancient Peru
Excavations at Pachacamac in Peru have revealed evidence for large-scale pilgrimages at the time of the Incas. Ongoing research is exploring the pilgrims’ motivations and the ceremonies performed by them. Project director Peter Eeckhout describes the discoveries made by his team and how they illuminate our understanding of the biggest pre-Columbian empire.
When the Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro arrived at Pachacamac in January 1533, he had before him one of the jewels of the Inca Empire. This extraordinary site covers nearly 600ha and consists of three concentric areas. The Sacred Precinct, near the sea, contains the principal temples; the Second Precinct holds many monumental mudbrick buildings, including elite residences known as ramp pyramids, as well as streets and stately courts and plazas; the Third Precinct, the largest and least explored, has today been consumed by the desert, whose dunes cover the buildings forming the suburbs of Pachacamac. ‘We arrived,’ Pizarro says, ‘in this city that seems very old because most of the buildings are in ruins.’ Archaeological research has since vindicated his judgement. The conquistador described the city as extremely large with beautiful buildings featuring ‘terraces as in Spain’.
Nearly 500 years later, as the morning mist lingers over the immense ruins, I think about how the site appeared at the height of its splendour. Over the course of my excavations, I have also tried to understand what the city was like before the Incas arrived, when both the site and its inhabitants were known by the name of Ychsma. For 25 years, I have been conducting research in Pachacamac under the auspices of the Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB Foundation, and the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, to establish a better understanding of the city that Pizarro described.
The terraced buildings that caught the Spaniard’s eye are what we now call pyramids with ramps. After dedicating more than a decade to the systematic excavation of these buildings and piecing together the political power structure of the chiefdom of Ychsma, we are now interested in its main deity, who was also called Ychsma, before being renamed Pachacamac by the Incas. They made his worship one of the main oracular cults of their empire and organised amazing pilgrimages in the god’s honour.
To be a pilgrim
According to the conquistadors this custom was extremely popular, and the Spanish recorded some details about the cult. The faithful came from all parts of the Empire, travelling for hundreds of miles in order to see the famous oracle. Arrival at Pachacamac only marked the beginning of their devotions, as they had to subject themselves to prolonged fasting, praying, and making offerings to the deity. Over time the pilgrims progressed through successive courts, which took them ever closer to the sanctuary. The entire process took over a year!
Such behaviour raises many questions. What motivated the faithful? Why did they bend to such strict rules? What benefit did the pilgrims seek? Why was the worship of Ychsma-Pachacamac so popular? Was it just for his abilities as an oracle, or for other reasons? How old was the pilgrimage custom? Was it instituted by the Incas, the Ychsma, or could its origins lie even further back in time? Such questions cannot be safely answered by recourse to colonial texts alone, and the Incas and their predecessors did not create written records, so it is to archaeology that we must turn.
The protocol that the pilgrims followed also held sway at all the great pilgrimage sites of the Inca Empire, such as the island of the Sun of Titicaca, or the Coricancha of Cusco. Indeed, the snippets of information that are known about the Pachacamac pilgrimage and oracular worship have been used to create a model for interpreting the site not only at the time of the Incas, but also in previous periods. It has also been applied to other sites across the Andes, which are more or less distant in time and space. Given that this interpretation is primarily built on conquest-era documents and the conquistadors’ perceptions of what they saw, it is important to verify their statements. Some details, such as fasting and praying, are by nature archaeologically intangible, but others could be tested to support, qualify, invalidate, or confirm the interpretation of these texts. So, we began an excavation programme to better understand the character of the pilgrimage, its longevity, and its popularity. The places that we targeted were selected to answer questions relating to the logistics of the pilgrimage, the types of rituals that the pilgrims carried out, and their place of origin.
Images: Peter Eeckhout, ULB