Santa Rita, a Petroglyph Site in the Chao Valley, Northern Peru

Maarten van Hoek.


Santa Rita is a rock art site in the Chao Valley in the north of Peru (Departamento de La Libertad; Provincia de Virú; Distrito de Chao). The archaeological complex has only recently been reported to the scientific world through excavations in the area between 1998 and 2008. The excavations of the site - directed by Jonathan Kent of the Metropolitan State College, Denver, USA - mainly focussed on Pre-Columbian domestic buildings and burial sites, but as part of the general surveying of the area several boulders with rock art have also been recorded, mainly in the area to the NE of the excavations. The rock art site is still largely unknown to the scientific world, but as a result of a publication by Carol Patterson, Teresa Rosales Tham and Victor Vásquez Sánches (2010; their MS has 21 pages, numbered 1 to 21 in the PDF that I have received from Carol Patterson) some information is now available. It is this 2010 MS - Petroglyphs of Santa Rita B Complex, Chao Valley, Peru (henceforth referred to as the Patterson-MS) - that I will comment on, as several conclusions and interpretations by the authors are - in my opinion - questionable.


Site history

For matters of convenience (also because - in general - I question the relationship between excavation remains and nearby rock art) I distinguish the excavation site; Santa Rita B, and the rock art site; Santa Rita. The excavation site was recorded by Mercedes Cárdenas as early as 1976, but as far as I know, no rock art had been recorded at that occasion. Much later, in the years 1999 to 2002, the excavation team of Jonathan Kent recorded several petroglyph boulders near the excavations in two areas that were labelled Sector 1 and Sector 2. In the years 2000 to 2002 further petroglyph boulders were recorded by the excavation team in another area, Sector 3, while in 2004, Carol Patterson re-evaluated the petroglyphs located in Sector 3 and recorded new ones within Sector 4. Unfortunately, the exact location of those four Sectors is very confusing, as I will explain below.

Probably in 2008 a web page about the dig was published by the California Institute for Peruvian Studies - CIPS (Kent 2008). This web page once had a link to a photo page (that is no longer accessible) where I found a few photos of the Santa Rita petroglyphs. I contacted Jonathan Kent to ask for further details, but by that date no further surveying results were available. In 2008, after an extensive email communication initiated by Carol Patterson (who had been informed by Jonathan Kent about my interest in Santa Rita), my wife Elles and I visited the Santa Rita boulder field and recorded more petroglyph boulders. The following paper is based on my 2008 survey, the 2010 Patterson-MS, the information (once) available in the web pages about Santa Rita and the most useful information (mainly personal records/photographs) kindly received from Carol Patterson.



The Chao River, located on the western flank of the Andean Cordillera, is one of the driest drainages in the Peruvian Andes. Despite being located in the coastal subtropical zone, the area is arid with scarce annual rainfall (up to 40 mm maximum), while the average temperature is about 16° C. Considering the dry and desolate conditions of the area today, it is clear that severe changes have occurred on this landscape since its earliest occupation. Nowadays this coastal area is often covered in low clouds or fog (called garúa), very occasionally producing light rain or a fine drizzle. The soils in the valley are often rocky and low in nutrients, and closer to the ocean the ground water is saline. All of these factors contribute to the lack of major wildlife and sparse vegetation.

The Santa Rita rock art site is located at the eastern end of the Chao Valley (Figure 1), 28 km inland, about 69 km SE of the city of Trujillo, 17 km NE of the village of Chao and on average 1.5 km NE of the hill called Cerro Santa Rita (also known as Cerro Salital). Santa Rita is a rather remote site and it is hard to find/reach because of a maze of narrow and winding tracks that crisscross the valley floor. Moreover, it is situated between the convergence of two east-west stretching valleys and thus the major dirt roads fortunately avoid the site. Although I did not see instances of vandalism, the relatively ‘unspoilt’ area is disturbed by some recent tracks and other minor anthropic activities.

To the north of the site is the valley of the rivers Chorobal and Tutumo, while to the south is the valley of the Río Huamanzaña (which further east is called Río Huaraday). To the north, south and east the site is surrounded by mountain peaks, the most impressive and eye-catching being the triangular peak of Cerro Colorado (906 m O.D.), 4 km to the north (Figure 2). The archaeological complex is directly overlooked by Cerro Santa Rita to the west, while the rock art site is found between Cerro Pucarachic(o) to the east and NE and Cerro Aguadas Calientes to the SW (see Figure 3-top). Especially to the west are wide views (across the flat valley floor of the Chao Valley) and, though more limited, also to the SE (overlooking a part of the valley floor of the Huamanzaña).

Figure 1. Location map (scale 5 km) of the Santa Rita petroglyph site
(marked 1 - Frame: see Figure 3-top) in the Chao Valley,
and other rock art sites in the area: 2: Chorobal; 3: Susanga; 4: Queneto-Tomabal.
Map by Maarten van Hoek; based on the map: La Libertad - Virú, in: Mapas Dre y UGEL.
Figure 2. Landscape at Santa Rita, looking north towards the peak of Cerro
Colorada with the N-S running Muralla Pircada in the foreground.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

Compared with several other coastal valleys, the Chao Valley is a relatively small. The west part of the area is characterised by several large areas of sand (dunes and pampas) and low rocky hillocks, while the east part is rocky and mountainous. To date most of the lands in the lower valley are being cultivated more intensely using waters of the ‘Chavimochic’ irrigation project, which provides water for agriculture in the Chao, Virú, Moche and Chicama Valleys. Fortunately this immense project never threatened the Santa Rita archaeological site (but has disturbed other sites).

As is often the case in this part of the Andes, the archaeological complex of Santa Rita is found on an alluvial fan, which in this case stretches 2.3 km from north to south and 1.5 km from west to east where it is blocked by a south running ridge of Cerro Pucarachic. However, the alluvial fan actually continues much further east. The fan gently slopes from east (at 460 m O.D. at the foot of Cerro Pucarachic) to the NW and west (at 390 m O.D. at the modern western edge of the uncultivated fan) measuring along the major quebrada that bisects the alluvial fan. The major concentration of petroglyph boulders is at about 420 m, just north of the major quebrada (the only feature on the fan that was visible with Google Earth before December 2012 - after that date a high resolution photo became available).

Associated Archaeology

Almost as a rule in Coastal Andean archaeology, also the rock art site of Santa Rita is not an isolated site. On the contrary, the Chao Valley contains many prehistoric remains and of these quite a few are from the Pre-Ceramic Period (dating before 2000 B.C). During this early period the Chao area supported a thriving society with a mixed maritime and terrestrial economy. The area was later occupied by people during the Formative Period (2000 to 200 B.C.), the Early Intermediate Period, in which Moche occupied the area, and much later by the Chimú. Nearby Cerro Santa Rita possibly fulfilled a role similar to that of a ‘huaca’, but instead of having a wide regional function, it was more oriented to local religion. Other major archaeological complexes in the Chao drainage are San Jorge, El Naranjo, Cerro La Cruz and Las Salinas de Chao.

The north of coastal Peru is also rich in rock art sites, but I will only mention the neighbouring rock art sites as they may be relevant in this discussion. About 50 km to the south is Palamenco where (Formative Period) imagery similar to that at Santa Rita has been recorded by me. Some 42 km to the east, across rugged mountainous landscape, is the archaeological complex of La Galgada where at least two rock art sites have been recorded (Bueno Mendoza 2006). To the north, in the neighbouring valley of the Virú River is Tomabal and the archaeological Temple Complex of Queneto (26 km WNW) where numerous petroglyph boulders are found, and the Susanga Pyramid Complex (16.5 km NW) where at least eight petroglyph boulders are known to exist (Thomas Zoubek 2012: pers. comm.). So far only one other rock art site has been found in the Chao drainage, at 6.3 km to the NE of Santa Rita in the Chorobal Valley. It is called Quebrada de Huanáco or just Chorobal, while Hosting (2003: 208) also mentions the geoglyphs of two large ‘camelids’ near this site. It may be part of an inland route, perhaps leading to the La Galgada Complex.


The Petroglyphs of Santa Rita

As I said earlier, the petroglyphs occur in four Sectors, except for one pillar stone (recorded by Jonathan Kent; not seen by me) with a large number of faint cupules on its flat upper surface; many arranged in a large circle. Although the meaning and/or function of those cupules are obscure, the whole composition looks like a calendar stone or perhaps some recording device. This stone (which is not necessarily a standing stone - comparable with an erected ‘menhir’ - as suggested in the 2010 Patterson-MS) is located near the western fringe of the alluvial fan.

Unfortunately, a distribution map that clearly pinpointed the location of all individual petroglyph boulders and that unequivocally indicated the limits of the four Sectors has never been published. Moreover, the various (on-site sketch) maps that I received from Carol Patterson indicate the four sectors at different places. For instance, one map indicated Sector 2 (marked with ‘2’ in Figure 3-top) just to the SE of the major dig area (marked with ‘B’ in Figure 3), while another map had Sector 2 marked to the NE of the major dig.

Figure 3. Location maps of the Santa Rita petroglyph Sectors.
B: The major 1998-2008 excavation area of Santa Rita B.
1 to 4: the Petroglyph Sectors. Drawings by Maarten van Hoek; based on
Google Earth (Maps). All scales 500 m.

Based on all those maps, my own short visit and the recently published (December 2012) satellite photo in Google Earth, I now venture to place Sector 1 (orange squares in Figure 3-bottom) about 1400 m ENE of the northern tip of Cerro Santa Rita (red square in Figure 3-top) and Sector 2 roughly 1200 m to the SE of the northern tip of Cerro Santa Rita. Both are located to the west of the Muralla Pircada (to the left of the wall in Figure 3); an impressive stone wall that crosses the alluvial fan from NNE to SSW (other walls cross the mountains to the east). Sector 3 (green squares in Figure 3-bottom) is roughly 1600 m due east of the northern tip of Cerro Santa Rita and Sector 4 (red squares in Figure 3-bottom) is 1950 m ENE of the northern tip of Cerro Santa Rita, and both are to the east of the Muralla Pircada and north of the major quebrada.

Sector 4, surveyed for the first time by Carol Patterson in 2004, is said to be located to the NE of Sector 3, but the factual limit between Sectors 3 and 4 is unknown to me. Confusing is that the 2010 Patterson-MS states that a certain petroglyph, on Boulder SRB-002 (Roca AF), is found in Sector 2 (Table 1; Row 4), while it actually is located just east of the Muralla Pircada in Sector 3. Also confusing is that the Patterson-MS states that Sector 4 ‘encompasses the south-eastern boundary of the flood plain’ (2010: 3; my emphasis). This might imply that Sector 4 is found to the SE of the major quebrada and that I have seen a different Sector (5?) altogether. A second email communication with Carol Patterson could not clarify this possible disagreement.

It is unknown to me how many (and which) boulders have been recorded by the excavation team of Jonathan Kent and Carol Patterson in Sector 1, but I could find only a few petroglyph boulders north of the major quebrada and west of the Muralla Pircada. I did not see Sector 2, but in 2000  about 21 petroglyph boulders were recorded in a band stretching NW to SE for about 130 m, located just north of a minor quebrada. The petroglyphs mainly comprise minor (curvi)linear markings, at least two ‘masks’ and a few simple images of zoomorphs and anthropomorphs. Sector 2 is said to be traversed by an ancient road (all information about Sector 2 is based on personal communication with and information received from Carol Patterson: 2008).

I am certain that I have surveyed Sector 1 (but only the part north of the quebrada) and most of Sectors 3 and 4 (indicated by the red numbers in Figure 3-top), but still several boulders escaped my attention. However, as the 2010 Patterson-MS only proves to make reference to petroglyphs that were recorded in Sector 3 and 4, the observations in my paper do not detract from the main thrust of my arguments.

Another problem is that the Patterson-MS does not provide any numbering system of the petroglyph boulders. This is unfortunate, especially as the original sketches made during the period of 2000 to 2002 by the excavation team members provide a (possibly provisional) labelling system, using the Spanish term Roca (rock) followed by a letter code. Because of this general deficiency of the 2010 Patterson-MS, I hereby introduce my own system in which every petroglyph boulder is prefixed with SRB (Santa Rita B) followed by its own number. In case there are more decorated panels, I have added capital letters (for instance: panel SRB-017A). Wherever possible, I will also mention the original Roca labelling system used by the 2000-2002 excavation team members (for instance: SRB-017 - Roca AAA).

The boulder field of Santa Rita mainly is covered with sand, gravel and numerous small and medium-sized boulders; only relatively few boulders exceed 3 or 4 metres. There are two major types of rock. One type involves a light grey granite-type of boulder that shows hardly any patination and hardly any exfoliation. Probably because working this harder type of rock will produce petroglyphs with hardly any contrast, this type of rock was not favoured for petroglyph production in ancient times. I could find only one boulder of this type with a very faint petroglyph.

The other type of stone is (originally greenish) andesite which over time produces an attractive deep red-brown patina on its exposed surfaces. Except for the petroglyph mentioned above, all definite petroglyphs that I have seen appear on andesite boulders. Unfortunately many of these andesite boulders have a tendency to severely weather and exfoliate (a natural weathering process in which outer layers of the stone are gradually ‘peeled off’, like an onion). Many boulders have crumbled away almost completely and several petroglyphs have been damaged (and most likely also destroyed) by this natural process. Moreover, many of the petroglyphs have weathered considerably because of further weathering and (wind) erosion.

Santa Rita proves to be a major petroglyph site. Although the first surveys by Jonathan Kent’s team yielded only a few petroglyph boulders, it is now one of the few sites in Peru with more than a hundred decorated boulders. Together with the earlier recordings (2000 to 2004) I now have a documentation of 152 boulders with petroglyphs. Yet, it is not the intention of this paper to provide a full inventory, but there are a few issues that I would like to address here.


Dating Issues

The first issue concerns the dating of the Santa Rita petroglyphs in the 2010 Patterson-MS. My first concern is that the time chart of Table 1 does not include the Early Intermediate and Late Intermediate periods and thus incorrectly places the Moche only in the Middle Horizon, while similarly Chimú is incorrectly placed in the Late Horizon (this should be: Middle Horizon to Late Intermediate Period).

Moreover, the Patterson-MS ‘puts the sample size of about 75-100 petroglyphs across 4 Sectors into an estimated age chronology based on style in conjunction with visual assessment of the age due to weathering (2010: 6-7; Table 1; my emphases). Based on these two unreliable parameters the Patterson-MS argues that ‘The petroglyphs appear to range in age from early periods that correspond to Chavín, Gallinazo era from both style and faintness in appearance. Superimposition of later petroglyphs from Moche and Chimú eras show up brighter and less weathered’.

I now have a twofold problem with this statement and with the results offered in Table 1. Firstly, I am surprised by the uncorroborated and curious interpretations of the various images and, secondly, I am amazed by the astonishing ease with which those images have been dated in Table 1. For instance purported ‘symbols representing natural land or water forms’ and ‘geometric symbols’ have been classified as: Late Horizon and/or Chimú (A.D. 800 to 1400). I have no idea why the presented symbols should represent natural land or water forms’. This might be the case, but I could not find any convincing argument; not for the interpretation, nor for the date.

One of the justifications for a Chimú claim is that one of the ‘geometric symbols’, the terrace-motif, also occurs at Chan Chan, the well known Chimú capital just NW of Trujillo. Carol Patterson does not seem to have been aware that this specific motif also occurs in Formative Period iconographies, many hundreds of years before Chimú (and moreover occurring in almost every Andean culture). The fact that this petroglyph (Figure 4) looks relatively fresher does not have to mean anything; the petroglyph may have been re-pecked by members of subsequent cultures who apparently still valued the symbol (perhaps imbued with a different meaning, though).

Figure 4. Detail of the stepped motif on Boulder SRB-018.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

The only (careful) conclusion that I agree with to a certain extent is that the fine ‘feline’ head (Table 1; Row 1; first box) on Boulder SRB-006 (Roca AJ - Sector 3) is one of the (few!) images that is ‘dateable’ by its style (Figure 5). Notably the ‘feline’ head definitely belongs to the MSC-Style; an acronym introduced by me (Van Hoek 2011: 11) to nullify the incorrect and therefore unwanted Chavín label that many (rock art) images in the Andes have received. MSC-Style rock art images in this area more likely have been manufactured by one of the Cupisnique cultures (Guañape, Sechín) during a period of roughly 3500 B.C. to 200 B.C. (Preceramic / Formative Period).  Therefore, the date (narrowed down to 700-400 B.C. - Chavín/Cupisnique - Table 1; Row 1) stated by the 2010 Patterson-MS is highly questionable. In my opinion this ‘feline’ head is definitely not Chavín, but most likely of a (local) Cupisnique origin (or even older). Table 1; Row 1, shows two more drawings of purported Chavín/Cupisnique petroglyphs in Sector 3, but I could not see any stylistic evidence to categorise these petroglyphs as Cupisnique (although they may well be).

Figure 5. Detail-drawing of the MSC-Style head’ on Boulder SRB-006 (several other petroglyphs on this panel have been omitted). Drawing by Maarten van Hoek.

Following from the most uncertain chronology as suggested in the 2010 Patterson-MS there is another conclusion that I have serious reservations about. The 2010 Patterson-MS refers to a hypothesis put forth by Jonathan Kent that ‘the oldest cultures resided in the lower end of the alluvial fan and over time settled progressively further up the fan towards the mountain base’. This may be true; I am not in the position to doubt this. However, the 2010 Patterson-MS continues to say that ‘Similarly with the petroglyphs, he (Jonathan Kent) has observed what appear to be very old cupules on a standing stone near the base of the fan where the oldest features and artifacts have been excavated, while the more recent ‘Chimú style petroglyphs are found midway up the fan, near and just beyond the wall’, and that ‘The lightest engraved or scratched glyphs are found near the base of the mountains’. This is all very confusing (for instance: beyond; is that west or east of the wall?) as the observations seem to suggest that the oldest petroglyphs are found in the west part of the fan (although the cupules have never been dated) and the more recent (Chimú?) in the east part of the fan (near Cerro Pucarachic).

Again, the dating in Table 1 is not based on any scientific and/or stylistic evidence and the suggested chronological west-east flow is contradicted by the fact that the only ‘dateable’ petroglyph, on Boulder SRB-006, actually is found in the centre of the petroglyph field (93 m ESE of the Muralla Pircada; the location of Boulder SRB-006 is indicated with a black cross in a green square in Figure 3-bottom). In my opinion the Muralla Pircada cannot at all be related to the general petroglyph production, or to its content and/or distribution. Therefore it is irrelevant whether a petroglyph is found east or west of the wall. Moreover, in 2008 I recorded a petroglyph on Boulder SRB-058 that in my opinion shows certain MSC-Style properties (Van Hoek 2011: Fig. 107). Importantly, Boulder SRB-058 is found in the east part of the fan, in Sector 4, about 88 m west of the foot of Cerro Pucarachic.

I also dispute the general attitude to uncritically link petroglyphs with other archaeological remains nearby, like tombs, corrals or houses. Even if an in situ petroglyph boulder is found completely covered with smashed but in situ Chimú pottery, this fact does not provide any firm evidence for a Chimú origin of the petroglyphs. It only proves that Chimú ceramics were deposited on top of a petroglyph boulder at a certain time. Therefore, the verified occurrence of Moche and Chimú remains in the area do not prove that the petroglyphs are indeed Moche and/or Chimú.

Therefore, I prefer to suggest that the whole boulder field at Santa Rita predominantly has petroglyphs of the Early Horizon, Formative Period and possibly even of the Pre-Ceramic Period and that only a number of petroglyphs (but I cannot determine which ones) are of a later date (and possibly these may include images of Moche or Chimú origin/manufacture/influence).


Interpretation Issues

Interpreting ancient petroglyphs is often extremely tricky. Often we see what we want to see and moreover ignore the fact that much of the ancient rock art image(s) may have disappeared; especially in the older images in areas with climatic circumstances that are unfavourable regarding preservation. Furthermore, the interpretation that we offer may not even remotely be the same as the mind-image and/or meaning of the prehistoric manufacturer of the petroglyph we see now (I will give an example of such a disagreement when discussing the ‘Cactus’ Issue). Therefore, in general it is wiser to explicitly express your uncertainty regarding any interpretation and not to jump to conclusions that - from the start - may well be questionable. Last but not least, it would also be wise to have an open mind regarding alternatives.

There are several interpretations in the 2010 Patterson-MS that I seriously question, like the reading of the petroglyphs on Boulder SRB-028 (Roca EE) in Sector 3, placed in the Late Horizon (but why?). An incomplete (!) drawing of the petroglyphs in Table 1; Row 7, shows that the ‘star-like’ element of the image in the first box is much fainter represented. Actually, that is not the case. I could not see any relevant difference in patination (Figure 6). To me, it is disturbing that the Patterson-MS (2010: 13) interprets this set of petroglyphs as a ‘lizard snapping a fly’. First of all, the image may be incomplete as part of the boulder has disappeared because of exfoliation. Secondly, the lines ‘connecting’ the elements may just accidentally connect the figures and last but not least, why not expressing doubt or at least offering an alternative. My (jokingly - or not?) interpretation of a ‘biomorph giving birth’ may be as valid as any other reading. I have similar reservations regarding the ‘shells’ interpretation (Row 6) and the ‘open mouth or tail’ readings (Row 3). The former could well be interpreted as a ‘hand’ motif and although the latter instances may indeed concern images in which biomorphs may have ‘open tails or mouths’ because of a certain graphical convention (like numerous examples at Toro Muerto in the south of Peru), equally parts of the design may have weathered off. Yet, two specific interpretations need to be more fully discussed.

Figure 6. The petroglyphs on Boulder SRB-028.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

The ‘Cactus’ Issue

Interestingly, the 2010 Patterson-MS interprets a number of images (Table 1; Row 5) as ‘fully outlined (…. missing?) representing San Pedro cactus and flower’, while the caption to her Fig. 13D even reads: ‘petroglyph of San Pedro Cactus with possible snails on it’ (I will return to this ‘snail’ issue later on). According to the 2010 Patterson-MS ‘The cactus motif is the most prevalent motifs of all the petroglyph panels found in this survey’. However, there seem to be two different types of purported ‘cactus’ representations: roughly circular motifs (represented at Santa Rita with at least 5 motifs) and oblong elements (with at least 20 examples). Indeed, the motifs in question are indeed found on several boulders, but I doubt whether they are the most prevalent motif at Santa Rita (this may well be the reptile imagery: lizards and snakes).

Although I cannot prove that the cactus-interpretation is not correct, I would like to offer a more plausible alternative. Notably, it struck me that several of the purported ‘cactus’ motifs prove to have five small ‘elements’ at the top. These five elements could well represent ‘toes’ and thus the motif may well (or rather, better) be observed as a ‘foot’ image (in some cases even as a ‘sandal’).

There are several other arguments that underscore the ‘foot’ interpretation. Firstly, Andean iconography is not always concerned with representing the factual number of digits. Feet and hands often have four, even three or six digits. Thus, the ‘cactus’ motifs with less or more than five digits may still represent ‘hands’ or ‘feet’. An argument in favour of the ‘cactus’ interpretation is that they almost invariably have been depicted in a more or less vertical position, with the ‘toes’ on top. However, in rock art also ‘feet’ images are almost always found oriented vertically. However, one ‘foot’ petroglyph, on Boulder SRB-038 (Figure 7), is clearly oriented horizontally (although the rather small boulder may once have been disturbed and dislocated). Moreover, the ‘foot’ clearly shows five toes in such a way that it proves to be a ‘left foot’ (length about 22 cm). It seems to be superimposed on earlier (?) and clearly much fainter petroglyphs. Instances of palimpsest may also explain the interpretation of an image as a ‘petroglyph of San Pedro Cactus with possible snails on it’; the ‘snails’ being (parts of) earlier or later petroglyphs.

Figure 7. Close-up of the ‘foot’ petroglyph on Boulder SRB-038.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

There are other arguments in favour of the ‘foot’ interpretation. In a few cases examples of two ‘feet’ are found on a panel; either in a line or next to each other. The former configuration (only convincingly found on Boulder SRB-027A - Roca J) might be explained as symbolising a person ‘walking’; possibly even as following a (ritual) route. However, just above the two ‘feet’ are two circles, each with five lines. These may symbolise the ‘hands’ or ‘handprints’ (of the same person?). The fact that the 2010 Patterson-MS offers a drawing (Table 1; Row 5; second box) showing six ‘digits’ is not relevant as explained above. Moreover, scanning the photographic record of this boulder (Figure 8), I could trace only five ‘digits’ at each ‘hand’. It is moreover remarkable that the petroglyphs on panel SRB-027A have been ‘dated’ to the ‘Middle Horizon’ in the 2010 Patterson-MS (Table 1; Row 5; second box), while on the same boulder adjacent panel SRB-027B (also showing one - possible - ‘foot’ petroglyph) has been ascribed to the ‘Early Horizon’ (Table 1; Row 1; second box). Of course this is possible, but I wonder on what grounds these chronological decisions and distinctions have been made.

Figure 8. The petroglyphs on Panel SRB-027A.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

O nly a few metres further east of Boulder SRB-027 is Boulder SRB-029 (Roca ii). On the sloping NNW surface (panel SRB-029A) is one distinct ‘foot’ petroglyph and - much weathered and thus very doubtful - two more examples. On the vertical SSE facing side (panel SRB-029B) the 2010 Patterson-MS (Table 1; Row 5; first box) shows three ‘foot’ petroglyphs of differing sizes, although only two certain ‘foot’ petroglyphs are now visible. Despite the differing sizes they might have been intended to form a matching pair.

A more convincing (though much weathered) ‘pair of feet’ concerns the petroglyphs on Boulder SRB-063; actually it is the first petroglyph panel that I noticed at Santa Rita (in Sector 1 and about 50 m west of the great wall). It clearly is a ‘pair of feet’, overlooking a narrow (ancient?) path (Figure 9). In this case the pair indeed seems to depict a matching left and a right ‘foot’, each with five dots for ‘toes’.

Figure 9. The ‘feet’ petroglyphs on Boulder SRB-063
(left of an ancient [?] path).
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

The 2010 Patterson-MS (Table 1; Row 5; third box) also includes a motif (the only petroglyph on Boulder SRB-075 - not seen by me) comprising a circular groove with ten short grooves emerging all around from it, thus creating a kind of ‘solar’ or ‘stellar’ motif (Figure 10). Remarkably, this ‘solar’ motif is compared in Fig. 12 of the 2010 Patterson-MS with a photo (previously published in Wikepedia, though this source has not been mentioned) showing sections/slices of the actual San Pedro cactus. Again, I prefer to read this motif differently as well. To me it is more plausible that it is a ‘solar’ symbol; a rather common motif in Andean rock art. Equally, it could well represent something else. Moreover, the six-pointed slices of the cactus in Fig. 12 of the 2010 Patterson-MS have much more in common with the six-pointed stone mace head that was found in the area (information based on a photo once accessible in the 2008 CIPS internet page). Images possibly representing mace heads are very rare in Andean rock art (I know of only a few ‘convincing’ examples, at Yonán in Jequetepeque, while another occurs in the Virú Valley).

Figure 10. The petroglyph on Boulder SRB-075. Drawing by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph from the personal collection of Carol Patterson (2009: pers. com.).

Fig. 12 in the 2010 Patterson-MS shows another petroglyph (again the only motif on this stone; Boulder SRB-040 - not seen by me) comprising a circular groove with ten short grooves emerging from the upper arc only, thus giving the impression of a ‘hand with ten fingers’. This petroglyph is linked in the photograph with a cactus that happens to grow behind the boulder (in 2004). First of all, that specific cactus probably was not there when the petroglyph was made and even if another cactus was found nearby in ancient times, the motif not necessarily has anything to do with the actual cactus (not even while the top of the cactus somewhat resembles the petroglyph).

Finally, I do not see any reason to date those supposed ‘cactus’ petroglyphs (that I prefer to interpret as ‘feet’) only from the ‘Middle Horizon’, especially as the 2010 Patterson-MS contradicts this by stating that ‘The use of the San Pedro cactus has roots in the Chavín culture’, while simultaneously comparing the motif with earlier Cupisnique pottery (Fig. 13A). I categorically reject any unequivocal Chavín relationship for any of the petroglyphs at Santa Rita. I again prefer to date most of the Santa Rita petroglyphs to the local Cupisnique (or earlier) cultures, while later petroglyph influences are in my opinion scarcer.


The ‘Snail’ Issue

One of the purported ‘cactus’ petroglyphs was said to have possible snails on it (Patterson-MS 2010: Fig. 13D). The motif - that I prefer to read as a ‘foot’, despite the fact that the drawing in the Patterson-MS only shows four ‘digits’ - has some roughly circular internal markings. Although I cannot offer any proof that would contradict the ‘snail’ interpretation, I cannot unconditionally accept that those small, amorphous markings are indeed depictions of ‘snails’.

Even more controversial - and in my opinion unacceptable - are the claims in the Patterson-MS (2010: 14) that ‘Depictions of land snails are found both in profile and cross section on a boulder in Sector 3’, referring to the petroglyphs on Boulder SRB-017 (Roca AAA). Even though the caption to Fig. 14 reads ‘A boulder possibly depicting a snail and its chambered shell (A), and a living snail (B) with a close up drawing of the snail (C)’, the word ‘possibly’ is too unconvincing. The Patterson-MS also states that ‘The petroglyphs on this boulder show two perspectives of the snail. The brighter, segmented circle motif is of the snail shell in cross section showing the chambers. The corresponding line drawing is of a snail in profile with the over-arching shell that curls, the antenna on the head above the eye, and a ‘foot’ that reaches out in opposite directions’. All these claims will be commented on here.

First of all I dare any-one to make a cross section of the fragile land snail from the Santa Rita area and to compare it with the large circular ‘wheel’ motif on panel SRB-017B (Figure 11). I am pretty sure that it will be different to the petroglyph. And even if one is able to create a match, this not at all proves that the ‘wheel’ motif indeed represents a cross section of a snail. Interestingly, panel SRB-017A (the other side of the same boulder) also has a (much fainter) ‘wheel’ motif that has not been taken into account in the discussion. Moreover, similar ‘wheel’ motifs occur at other Andean rock art sites, where they are found associated with other designs and/or biomorphs. Finally, snail-shells (molluscs) do not have ‘chambers’ like prehistoric ammonites (squids).

Figure 11. The ‘wheel’ petroglyph on Panel SRB-017B.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

More disturbing is the interpretation of the zoomorphic petroglyph on panel SRB-017A (Figure 12), which is claimed to represent a ‘snail shown in profile’ in Fig. 16 of the 2010 Patterson-MS. The 2010 Patterson-MS offers three lines of ‘evidence’ for this claim, but all three substantiations are - to me - highly disputable and will be commented on.

Figure 12. The zoomorphic petroglyph on Panel SRB-017A.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek

Firstly, there is the ‘arc over the body to represent the shell that curls upwards’. To me this feature simply is the curled tail of the zoomorph; a fairly common position and shape of tails in zoomorphic figures in rock art images in this part of the Andes. Indeed, the groove arcs over the body, but it is not a line that is separated from the body. Only seemingly this ‘tail’ is detached from the rear end of the body. Notably, the very first bit of the tail (where it in fact is attached to the back of the zoomorph) is more weathered and thus fainter. Probably for that reason a small part of the tail has not been drawn in the black-and-white drawing of the Fig. 16 in the 2010 Patterson-MS (Figure 13: blue arrow). Another argument against the ‘arc representing a shell of a snail’ is that a number of petroglyphs of quadrupeds at Toro Muerto in the far south of Peru also have an ‘arc’, without giving any impression of representing or even symbolising a ‘snail’.

Figure 13. The purported ‘snail’ petroglyph on Panel SRB-017A. Drawing by Carol Patterson (2010: Fig 16); the blue arrow has been added by the author in comparison with Figure 12.

The second argument raised in the 2010 Patterson-MS to classify the zoomorph as a ‘snail’ is the fact that the ‘head’ has two short ‘antennae’. Indeed, snails often have those two appendages, but so do other species. In my opinion the two appendages simply represent the simplified ‘ears’ of the undeterminable zoomorph (a viscacha, perhaps?).

The third contention focuses on the ‘unusual’ position of the ‘legs’ and especially of the two ‘feet’. Notably, the Patterson-MS describes a specific aspect of the zoomorph a follows: ‘one foot [is] leading forward and one foot leading backward’ (2010: 14). First of all, snails do not have legs and feet (actually, I could now rest my case, but Andean iconography may again surprise us). More convincingly contradicting the ‘snail’ interpretation regarding the opposed ‘feet’ is the fact that other, also determinable, species of animals have been depicted in profile in Andean iconographies with ‘feet’ pointing in opposite directions.

Richard Burger illustrates a Chavín gold ‘feline’ (1995: Fig. 221) that clearly shows the same position of the two feet/claws, which proves that the custom to occasionally place ‘feet’ in an opposing configuration occurred as early as the Early Horizon and thus most likely as well in the Formative Period (or even earlier).

In the rock art of the Andes images of laterally depicted zoomorphs with ‘opposed feet’ also sporadically occur and some of them look very much like the Santa Rita example. Several remarkable analogies are found at one of the Motocachy Pampa petroglyph sites, NW of the town of Moro in the Nepeña Valley, recorded by Donald Proulx in 1971. Boulders MP1-002, MP1-003 and MP1-006 (Figure 14) feature zoomorphs with ‘opposed feet’, that are more or less similar to the Santa Rita zoomorph. The fact that the ‘tail-ends’ spirals downwards is irrelevant in this respect. Interestingly, also this site (about 75 km SE of Santa Rita) has at least one definite MSC-Style ‘face’ petroglyph, on Boulder MP1-004 (Van Hoek 2011: Fig. 118).

Figure 14. Petroglyphs on Boulder MP1-006 at Motocachy Pampa - Site 1, Nepeña. Photograph from the personal collection of Donald Proulx (2009: pers. com.).

Another petroglyph that has much in common with the Santa Rita ‘snail’ occurs on Boulder VAG-004 at El Vagón-2 in Moche (about 56 km NW of Santa Rita). I discovered this example (Figure 15) in 2008. If there would be an applicant in Andean rock art for representing a ‘snail’, this petroglyph would possibly be a better candidate. A short distance further south is Alto de la Guitarra with a few petroglyphs of zoomorphs with ‘opposed feet’.

Figure 15. Petroglyph on Boulder VAG-004 at El Vagón-2, Moche.
Drawing by Maarten van Hoek.

In the Chicama drainage (more than 100 km NW of Santa Rita) Daniel Castillo Benites reported several petroglyphs of zoomorphs with ‘opposed feet’, for instance the ‘squirrel’ (ardilla de los algarrobales) at Quebrada la Mónica (2006: Fig. 43). At Cerro Negro, also in Chicama, I noticed several petroglyphs of profile zoomorphs with ‘opposed feet’ (possibly all ‘monkeys’).

At La Galgada (42 km east) are two petroglyphs of ‘felines’ (?) that may be regarded to have ‘opposed feet’ (Bueno Mendoza 2006: Foto 2 and Lámina IV). At Yonán in Jequetepeque (about 150 km NW of Santa Rita) several panels have zoomorphic petroglyphs with ‘opposed feet (for example YON-015, YON-038B, YON-040A and YON-048). Panel YON-026A even has a ‘feline’ petroglyph with ‘opposed feet’. At nearby Quebrada de Felino (or Pampa de Mosquitos) two petroglyphs clearly depict zoomorphs with ‘opposed feet’, one probably a Formative Period ‘feline’ (Pimentel 1986: Figs 81.1 and 82.1). Also at Palamenco (about 50 km SE of Santa Rita), a small, fully pecked zoomorph with distinctly ‘opposed feet’ occurs, on Boulder PAL-062A. Interestingly, Alto de la Guitarra, Yonán, Quebrada de Felino, Motocachy Pampa and Palamenco all have MSC-Style imagery from the Formative Period, like Santa Rita.

More than 557 km SE of Santa Rita, Víctor Salvo (2011) reported a similar zoomorph with ‘opposed feet’ on the Gran Piedra Sagrada near Lunahuaná in Cañete (Lima). The zoomorph (Figure 16) has been interpreted as a ‘fox’ (el zorro lunar) by its discoverer, who moreover identified the zoomorph with Moche iconography (despite the fact that Moche supremacy never reached Cañete). A short distance further south in the same area, a painting on a ceramic - possibly belonging to the Chincha culture - clearly shows a fully profile zoomorph with opposed feet (source - fuente). Even as far south as Toro Muerto and Alto de Pitis (both sites located at about 1070 km SE of Santa Rita) several petroglyphs of quadrupeds with ‘opposed feet’ (probably ‘camelids’) have been recorded by me, for instance at Toro Muerto on Boulders Da-003, Da-044 Dx-082, and especially on Da-042 (Figure 17), and at Alto de Pitis on Boulder AP3-132 (Figure 18). All these analogies regarding the ‘opposed feet’ demonstrate that the property of having ‘opposed feet’ is no indication of animal species and thus also the ‘snail’ interpretation must be rejected.

Figure 16. Petroglyph on the Gran Piedra Sagrada, Lunahuaná, Cañete.
Drawing by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Víctor Salvo (2011: Fig. 1).
Figure 17. Petroglyph on Boulder Da-042 at Toro Muerto, Majes
(the two larger legs may have been added at a later stage).
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.
Figure 18. Petroglyph on Boulder AP3-132 at Alto de Pitis, Majes.
Photograph by Maarten van Hoek.

Finally, regarding the Boulder SRB-017 petroglyphs, the 2010 Patterson-MS claims that ‘These [snail] petroglyphs illustrate an evolved stage of picture-writing characteristic of the period around A.D. 1300 to 1400’, and places them in the ‘Late Horizon’ (Table 1; Row 8; second box), while the 2010 Patterson-MS simultaneously claims that the ‘underlying glyphs, that are very faint’ have been assigned to the ‘Early Horizon’ - Salinar culture - 400 to 200 B.C. (Table 1; Row 2; first box). This implies a huge chronological discrepancy, which is inexplicable, because it is based on what evidence?

The Patterson-MS however ignores the possibility that a collection of motifs on a rock panel made by one culture may have been executed using different techniques (resulting in very superficial to more deeply pecked motifs). Even a ‘small’ time span of one to two hundreds of years between the manufacturing of two layers of petroglyphs on one panel by one culture may result in the combination of fainter and brighter (and different!) motifs that we see on one panel nowadays. And again, also ignored is the possibility that certain motifs were (partially) re-pecked in (much) later eras by other cultures.

Personally I do not believe in the picture-writing theory (which, in the case of the 2010 Patterson-MS, departs from the unverified assumption that the petroglyphs indeed depict ‘snails’, which I proved to be highly questionable) and moreover, I do not see any reason to claim that this picture-writing would be ‘characteristic of the period around A.D. 1300 to 1400’. Why not earlier? To me all those claims are unsupported and thus unscientific remarks.



In general I applaud every serious attempt at interpreting rock art motifs. However, in every case any interpretation must be credible and should be substantiated by acceptable, reliable and verifiable arguments. In my opinion absolute statements (those offering no room for alternatives) should be avoided. In most cases we simply do not know what a rock art motif exemplifies, not to mention the fact that we hardly ever will understand the exact meaning ‘behind’ the visible motif as experienced and ‘seen’ by the prehistoric manufacturer. Every rock art researcher should have an ‘open mind’ and preferably express the fact (in whatever way) that he or she is often only subjectively interpreting, which means that hardly anything is certain.

In the case of the general chronology suggested for the Santa Rita petroglyph record, I have demonstrated that the results in the 2010 Patterson-MS are highly questionable. So far none of the petroglyphs at Santa Rita yielded an absolute date. Only a few images can roughly be dated to the Early Horizon and/or Formative Period. This is dating is only based on the graphical analogies with images in dateable structures. The remainder is (most) uncertain. This uncertainty should have been expressed.

In case of the interpretations in the 2010 Patterson-MS of a number of motifs (especially the ‘cactus’ and the ‘snail’ explanation) I have demonstrated that alternative readings are available (respectively ‘feet’ and ‘viscacha’), without claiming however that my readings are the only correct interpretations.



This paper could not have been written without the help of several people. In this respect I would like to especially thank Carol Patterson for her personal and magnanimous help by making specific information on Santa Rita rock art accessible to me. She generously provided me with detailed information on Santa Rita, including many drawings and unpublished photographs from her personal records, some of which has been used in this paper. I am also grateful to Carol for emailing me a digital copy of the 2010 Patterson-MS. I am also indebted to Professor Donald Proulx from the University of Massachusetts for sharing with me photographs of Nepeña rock art and informing me of the Motocachy petroglyph complex. I am also grateful to Dr Thomas Zoubek for his information on the Susanga petroglyphs. Last but not least, I would like to thank my wife Elles for her support as usual and for sheltering me with an umbrella against the (unanticipated) light rain we had at Santa Rita.


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Cómo citar este artículo:

van Hoek, Maarten. Santa Rita, a Petroglyph Site in the Chao Valley, Northern Peru.
En Rupestreweb,




(References in blue are links to the sources as accessible on the internet in 2012).

Burger, R. L. 1995. Chavín and the origins of Andean civilization. Thames and Hudson, London.

Castillo Benites, D. S. 2006. Arte Rupestre en la Cuenca del Río Chicama. Ediciones SIAN, Arqueología / 4. Trujillo, Perú.

Bueno Mendoza, A. 2006. Petroglifos en la quebrada Morín y La Galgada: de los textos gráficos al mito etiológico. Investigaciones Sociales 67: Arqueología. Año X; N° 17; pp. 67 - 90. UNMSM - IIHS, Lima.

Kent. J. 2008. Archaeological Investigations at Santa Rita B, Chao Valley, Northern Coast. Dig Peru: Archaeological Field Expedition to Northern Peru (1998-2008). In CIPS. The web page with the Project Photos - - is no longer accessible.

Pimentel, V. 1986. Petroglifos en el Valle Medio y Bajo de Jequepeteque, Norte del Perú. Bonn, Alemania. Verlag C. H. Beck, München.

Salvo V. 2011. Misterios de la ‘Piedra Sagrada’. In: Petrogliflos en Lunahuaná!!, importante anuncio. Lunahuaná.

The 2010 Patterson-MS: Patterson, C., T. Rosales Tham & V. Vásquez Sánchez. 2010. Petroglyphs of the Santa Rita B Complex, Chao Valley, Peru. Available on the internet (unfortunately only via Facebook).

Van Hoek, M. 2011a. The Chavín Controversy - Rock Art from the Andean Formative period. Privately Published using the BLURB Creative Publishing Service. Oisterwijk, The Netherlands.