Andean petroglyphs and Yanantin.
The case of El Olivar, Ancash, Peru
El Olivar is a small petroglyph site in the valley of
the Río Sechín, 317 km NNW of the Plaza Mayor in Lima, the capital of Peru.
Although far apart, the petroglyph site and the Plaza have one thing in common.
Notably, the colour scheme of the attractive flower beds on the Plaza Mayor
seems to be an echo from the past, as both the petroglyph site and the Plaza
Mayor flower beds show the contrasting colours of red and white (Figure 1).
This resemblance is most likely to be fortuitous, as the red and white flowers
more likely are intended to reflect the colours of the flag of Peru.
Figure 1. Contrasting flower beds of the Plaza Mayor in Lima, the
capital of Peru.
by Maarten van Hoek.
Interestingly however, much of the petroglyph art in
this part of the Andes features (rather: featured) the same contrasting
colours, surprisingly at micro level and at macro level. Importantly, in the natural landscape the contrasting colours
hardly ever are pure white and true red. Nevertheless, for matters of
convenience I will still use the terms ‘red’ and ‘white’ throughout the text,
but it will become clear that mainly the contrast between darker colours (for
instance black, red, purple, brown) and brighter colours (white, yellow, grey)
The only goal of this paper is to offer an impression of the rock art at Olivar and
to communicate a hypothesis about a specific relationship between petroglyph
production and ancient Andean worldview. It is not at all my intention to offer
any kind of scientific inventory of
the rock art site of El Olivar. I also do not want to pretend that I can offer
a complete scientific archaeological record for the area. I leave that to the academic, professional archaeologists.
In this paper the individual petroglyph panels at El
Olivar will only be described; no photos will be shown. However, in a video,
especially made to accompany this paper, all panels that I surveyed have been
included, as well as several maps and shots of the environment. The video has Spanish texts and is called Los Petroglifos de El Olivar - Río Sechín -
Perú (all hyperlinks in this paper were functioning at the time of
submission - March 2015).
The Archaeological Context
The valleys of the Río Sechín and adjacent Río Casma
(Figure 2) are famous for especially its Formative Period archaeological
monuments. About 20 km SE of El Olivar is the complex of Formative Period
monuments of - among many others - Cerro Sechín, Sechín Bajo and Sechín Alto
and several other ancient structures, many of which are lavishly decorated. The
zone near El Olivar (Figure 3) is less well documented but features as well
many prehistoric ruins that to my knowledge have not yet been excavated. About
1.5 km to the north of the petroglyph site and located on the floodplain of the
Río Sechín (10 in Figure 4) and on the edge of the hamlet of Olivar Bajo (at
340 m O.D.) are the remains of Huaca de
El Olivar (6 in Figure 4), while 760 m to the SE is a possible Tambo (resting place) (11 in Figure 4).
Opposite the Huaca de El Olivar the SE facing hill slopes of the Sechín Valley
are littered with prehistoric structures and terraces (7 in Figure 4),
indicating the significance of this particular zone in prehistoric times.
Another important archaeological feature confirms the key position of this
area. This feature will be discussed further below.
Figure 2. Map showing the location of the El Olivar petroglyph site in
the Sechín Valley, Ancash, Peru.
Green squares: rock art sites; yellow squares:
geoglyph sites. Map © by Maarten van Hoek, based on
Google Earth Relief Maps.
|Figure 3. Map showing the location of the El Olivar petroglyph site in
the Sechín Valley, Ancash, Peru. |
Map © by Maarten van Hoek, based on Carta educativa de
las Direcciones Regionales de
Educación y Unidades de Gestión Educativa Local.
Figure 4. Detail map showing the location of the El Olivar petroglyph
site (1) in the Sechín Valley, Ancash, Peru. Further
explanation in the text.
Map © by
Maarten van Hoek, based on Google Earth.
A short distance to the ESE and SSE of the Huaca de El
Olivar I passed two small mounds (9 in Figure 4) suggested by Dr. Robert Benfer
(2011) to (possibly) represent birds, while both their orientations (Azimuth
64?) are claimed by him to point to the June solstice sunrise (however, to me
the choice of only the ‘head’ of the sinuous mound is completely arbitrarily;
why not considering the Azimuths of the ‘neck’ or the ‘body’ of the ‘bird’?).
However, those features are located in the Sechín Valley, not in the Casma
Valley as Benfer claims.
In my opinion the claims by Benfer need to be
scientifically checked in the field, especially as the lines of visibility of
64? seem to be blocked by a mountain ridge of respectively 495 and 527 m in
altitude (located respectively 695 and 1269 m to the NE of the sinuous and
linear mound). It also should be checked whether those mounds are naturally
and/or artificially shaped. Moreover, it is fairly easy to recognise animal
shapes in the many - probably naturally shaped - mounds in such Andean river
valleys (for instance at 9° 26' 13.53" S. and 78° 13' 40.43" W. a
‘fish’ shaped mound may be recognised). Robert Benfer (2011) also claims that ‘a large bird geoglyph is also known from the
valley’ referring to Pozorski et al. (1991) who indeed reported a
bird geoglyph, but not in the Sechín Valley, but at Huaynuná on the coast, about 18 km north of Casma
and 28 km WNW of El Olivar (indicated with a yellow square in Figure 2).
The deserts between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean
are rich in petroglyph sites, but the petroglyph site of El Olivar is the third
rock art site so far recorded in the Sechín Valley. The earliest record of rock
art in the Sechín Valley probably concerns the isolated petroglyph boulder at
Cerro Sechín (possibly first reported by Julio C. Tello in 1937), located very
near the confluence of the Sechín and Casma rivers (indicated with a green
square in Figure 2). Later, a second petroglyph site was reported near the town
of Cunca, about 21 km upstream from Cerro Sechín. Later still, the petroglyph
site of El Olivar appeared on the internet.
Other (and more extensive) petroglyph sites are found
in the Casma Valley around Yautan (Suárez Ubillúz 2006), roughly 25 km SE of El
Olivar (indicated with a cluster of green squares in Figure 2), and in the Nepeña
Valley around the town of Moro (Proulx 1973; Van Hoek 2014a), roughly 29 km
north of El Olivar.
The Petroglyph Site of El
El Olivar is a small petroglyph site near the valley
of the Río Sechín (Departamento de Ancash
/ Provincia de Casma / Distrito de Buena Vista Alta), located roughly 25 km
inland and about 2 km SE of the river Sechín (Figures 2, 3 and 4; see video).
The site is located in a typical Andean desert landscape. There is a very sharp
contrast between the lush, fertile river valley and the barren desert that
immediately borders the valley. From (near) the site spectacular vistas of the
surrounding mountains can be seen, especially to the east (Figure 5; see
video). There is no vegetation at the site of El Olivar. Only in the dry river
bed of the Quebrada Tucushuanca (to the north of the site), isolated low trees,
some scrubs and scrubby vegetation occasionally occur. Because of the rare
torrential downpours (possibly caused by El Niño’s) this vegetation only
survives at the borders and somewhat higher places. Also, at several places
deep gullies have been carved out by such downpours south of El Olivar (Figure
6; see video).
Figure 5. Looking east across the dry river bed of Quebrada
Tucushuanca (4 in Figure 4)
A possibly prehistoric crossing place
seems to be indicated with a line of boulders.
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
The petroglyph boulders that make up the site (green
square in Figures 2 and 3; yellow line and 1 in Figure 4) are more or less
linearly arranged over a length of 580 m, while the width of the site is no
more than 30 m. This linear arrangement of petroglyph boulders rises from 350 m
O.D. at its north end to 390 m O.D. further SE.
The petroglyph site of El Olivar is largely unknown.
It is not listed in the Inventario
Nacional compiled by Rainer Hostnig (2003), and - as far as I know - also
not listed by the Instituto Nacional de
Cultura de Perú (situation
2011). The site came under my attention via the internet where a blog by
Augusto Llosa Giraldo (2011) presented El Olivar as a threatened site. Llosa
El Olivar es un sector del distrito de Buenavista Alta, que dista unos 5 kilometros en la carretera que va hacia Quillo, en donde se encuentran un sin numero de dibujos trabajados sobre piedras por hombres que poblaron este lugar. Y sin lugar a duda se puede observar que su antiguedad es mayor que otros vestigios arqueògicos de la provincia. Esta zona arqueòlogica esta abandonada y al parecer no està inventariada por el Instituto Nacional de Cultura - I.N.C. y como tal no tiene protecciòn oficial. Esperamos que las nuevas autoridades pongan en valor este zona que guarda una rico historial de nuestro pasado. (Llosa Giraldo 2011).
Together with this short text, 15 good quality
photographs (with captions) of the environment and of some petroglyph boulders
appear in the blog. Although the text did not mention the number of petroglyphs
or petroglyph boulders, the photos revealed that at least four petroglyph
boulders had been recorded by Llosa Giraldo in 2011. Our surveys in 2012
yielded no less than 15 boulders with one or more images (three previously
reported by Llosa Giraldo in 2011). Probably all boulders are of andesite; a
hard type of igneous stone that over time develops an attractive red patina,
although all shades of red, black, brown and yellow occur at El Olivar, like at
many other places in the Andes. All 15 petroglyph boulders are found at the
very foot of a low hill that rises to the east of the linear arrangement. This
hill, the westernmost extension of Cerro Colorado (2 in Figures 4 and 6), is
littered with small and medium sized red boulders and a few larger ones (Figure
9). At some places those smaller boulders seem to have been moved to form
geoglyphs (the area above ‘2’ in Figure 6; see video).
Looking SE across the southern end of the pass towards the (invisible)
Colorada. W: Walls of the Cupisnique Road; 2: the SE end of Cerro Colorado
(above the ‘2’ are possibly some geoglyphs (see video); 11: the location of the
(invisible) and other features. Photograph © by Maarten van
The Petroglyph Boulders
There are at least 15 petroglyph boulders (rocas) that I have labelled OVR-001 to
OVR-015. A 16th boulder (OVR-016), reported by Llosa Giraldo (2011),
was not noticed by us. Those 16 boulders will be briefly described roughly from
north to south. When having more than one decorated panel, capital letters have
been added (for instance OVR-002A etc). All petroglyphs have been manufactured
by superficially pecking away the thin layer of patinated stone. Most images
appear deeply patinated and many could only be distinguished with difficulty.
Therefore there may be more petroglyphs or decorated panels/boulders that may
show up in different or better lighting conditions. Measurements have not been
taken during our photographic survey. Also the bearings of the decorated
surfaces have not been registered, especially as many boulders may have been
disturbed, because this sacred site has been violated by a modern dirt track,
while its north end has been transformed into a modern cemetery, emphasising
(but probably also disturbing) the sacred nature of the spot.
In this paper no illustrations/photos of the
petroglyph panels are given. Instead, I have made a YouTube video in which all
15 petroglyph boulders that were recorded at this occasion are shown (photos of
Boulder OVR-16 can be seen in the blog by Llosa Giraldo). Please keep in mind
that many petroglyphs at El Olivar are extremely faint and only show up very
faintly in the video. For that reason all photos have been digitally enhanced
by me. Only a selection of photographs and video-fragments of the rock art
panels has been included. The text in the photos is in Spanish but will be
easily understood when reading this paper.
A medium sized boulder with a flat upper surface
bearing a rather clear pattern of lines. One of the lines seems to form a
stepped design, while others may represent the heads of biomorphs (snakes
perhaps). The patination of the petroglyphs is rather bright.
A rather large boulder has three panels. Panel A is a
vertical panel featuring a large complex pattern (a head perhaps?) of the
MSC-Style (the explanation of this acronym is given below). Attached to this
pattern are a possible biomorphic figure and a somewhat brighter but simple
pattern of lines. Panel B is also (near) vertical. It features two large and
almost horizontally arranged and frontally depicted anthropomorphic figures,
both manufactured in outline. The upper figure is incomplete (weathered off or
unfinished). It shows part of the upper body, short arms and an oval head
featuring ears, eyes, two dots for a nose and a simple line for the mouth. It
also seems to bear a ‘strange’ headgear (?). Its right hand touches the other
(complete) anthropomorphic figure. It has also an oval head with similar facial
features, but this time the ears seem to have earrings. Instead of a headgear,
five lines radiate from the upper part of the head, possibly representing hair,
a headgear or even power lines. Its right hand and foot appear on Panel C that
features an imperfect oval ring (the start of a third head?).
This boulder may well have been disturbed or turned
over, as anthropomorphic figures in a recumbent position are an anomaly in
Andean rock art. A fine example of a recumbent anthropomorphic petroglyph
occurs at La Laguna, Ascope, La Libertad, 215 km NW of El Olivar (Castillo
Benites 2006: Fig. 30; incorrectly illustrating the anthropomorph in an upright
This again is a rather large boulder with at least
four decorated panels. Panel A steeply slopes to one side and features a very
much weathered pattern of lines that may well represent a kind of biomorph since
three foot-like or hand-like petroglyphs are part of the design. This design is
very deeply patinated and very hard to see. Panel B is the steeply sloping
surface to the left of Panel A with some very faint and deeply patinated
designs that are extremely hard to decipher. Panel C is to the right of Panel
A. This very small, triangular panel features a set of concentric curved lines.
Panel D is a large, vertical panel that features two sets of patterns made by
straight lines (some of which may be natural). One set possibly depicts a small
biomorphic figure (a llama?).
This large boulder has four decorated panels. Panel A
is almost vertical. Its rough surface shows at least four petroglyphs (and
possibly there are more) that are rather deeply patinated. One of the
petroglyphs may portray a laterally depicted MSC-Style head (Cabeza Cupisnique?). Panel B features a
number of almost invisible lines of which the pattern is indecipherable. Panel
C is also almost vertical and shows a pattern of deeply patinated lines that
might form a bird image and at least on S-shaped spiral. To the right is a
pattern of lines that continues onto Panel D ending in a circular head with
simple dots for eyes and a straight line depicting the mouth. The top of the head
shows a triangular indentation thus forming two triangular (feline?) ‘ears’.
Near the head are some markings (one spiral-like), while further to the right
are two deep (natural or anthropic?) holes (shaped like cupules) that are
enclosed/surrounded by a complex but very faint design of lines that may depict
a biomorph; even an anthropomorph. These deeply patinated holes may have been
incorporated intentionally into the design to represent the eyes of the
A medium sized boulder shows a number of rather bright
petroglyphs near the upper end of an almost vertical panel. Dominating is a set
of three (possibly four) concentric curved lines incorporating a small circle
with central dot. Next to this set is a bright angular U-shape.
The upper surface of a medium sized boulder shows some
very faint petroglyphs including a small circle and a large circle with central
The vertical surface of this medium sized boulder
shows some short, straight lines.
This large, irregular, eroded boulder has a set of two
concentric ovals (an eye?) and a few indistinct lines/markings.
The upper surface of this small boulder seems to have
an unfinished or weathered-off petroglyph. Only part of the outline of a
possible head and the two ears (?) are visible at the moment.
The smooth upper surface of this small boulder (lying
very close to the modern track through the site) features a design of lines
that possibly represents a biomorph.
The almost vertical side of this medium sized boulder
features a bright oval shape with a dot touching the lower side thus giving the
impression of the MSC-Style eccentric eye. There are some more very indistinct
marking on this panel as well as a (natural) hole that may have a pecked line
around it. This boulder is just north of a low and short, ancient wall that
traverses the modern track at a right angle.
Another medium sized boulder lies on the other
(western) side of the modern track and just south of the low and short, ancient
wall that traverses the modern track. It is the southernmost petroglyph boulder
discovered at this occasion. Its upper surface has some very indistinct lines
(some possibly natural) and a (natural) hole with a rather bright ring around
North of Boulder OVR-011 are three other petroglyph
boulders. An angular boulder of medium size has some very faint lines (one
group forming a pattern) on its steeply sloping and very smooth surface
(partially covered by a large boulder).
This medium sized boulder has an almost invisible
pattern of lines on its upper surface.
This medium sized boulder has an almost invisible
pattern of lines on its almost vertical surface (some of the lines may have
been formed by natural processes).
This is the only boulder reported by Llosa Giraldo
(2011) that we missed during our survey and therefore it may well be located
elsewhere, for instance further south of the low and short, ancient wall that
traverses the modern track; possibly in or near the alleged Tambo (11 in Figure 4). According to the
photos posted by Llosa Giraldo (2011) the boulder is part of a low wall forming
a roughly circular structure.
The following description of Boulder OVR-016 is based
on the four photographs by Llosa Giraldo (2011). The decorated, vertical panel
of the boulder, which is incorporated in the low, circular construction and
which is facing inwards, bears a three-convolution spiral, a large circle with
central dot and short outward line, another, smaller circle with internal
markings, two circles with central dots and short rays as if depicting ‘suns’,
an irregular circle, a small oval and at least three indeterminate markings.
The whitish-patinated petroglyphs are rather delicately executed and in my
opinion they may represent a collection of images from another culture (other
than Sechín or Cupisnique).
El Olivar as Part of the
Cupisnique Road System
An important facet of this site, which possibly
explains the linear character of this petroglyph group, has hitherto not been
mentioned. All petroglyph boulders are more or less aligned along a prehistoric
road of probably Cupisnique (Formative Period) origin. Although the factual
association is uncertain (some petroglyphs may be older than the construction
of the road), several of the (now disturbed?) petroglyph boulders may even have
been incorporated into the ancient road on purpose.
The possible contemporaneity with the ancient road is
demonstrated by the fact that several petroglyphs at El Olivar display the
MSC-Style, an acronym (Van Hoek 2011) referring to specific images from the
Andean Formative Period mainly manufactured by the coastal Manchay (Lima),
Sechín (Casma) and Cupisnique cultures (Virú-Trujillo-Chiclayo). I thus
categorically reject any Chavín origin for the (MSC-Style) petroglyphs at El
Olivar. They more likely have been manufactured by the contemporary Sechín or
Cupisnique cultures (although an earlier or - more likely - later date cannot
be ruled out for a number of the images).
The prehistoric road actually consists of two
parallel, low walls of boulders (Figure 6) with a width of 20 to 30 m, while
two short, much narrower roads (width 3 to 4 m) connect the main road with the
possibly ancient structure (the alleged Tambo;
11 in Figures 4 and 6) 760 m SE of El Olivar. The interior between the parallel
walls has largely been cleared of (the larger stones). At certain spots only
one wall has been constructed (this happens quite often elsewhere in this part
of the Andes). Although several sections of the bordering walls may also have
disappeared because the destructive forces of downpours and floods caused by El
Niño’s and also because of the construction of modern tracks and other recent
activities, it is possible to trace the road (also with Google Earth) to the SE
for about 3.5 km where it connects with Pampa Colorada (Figure 3; see video)
(because of several factors a section of about 3.3 km of this road is
untraceable at the moment, but it reappears again for 4.4 km). This section of
the ancient road (red arrow in Figure 3) probably was part of the ‘coastal’
route from the valley of the Río Sechín via the Pampa Colorada to the valley of
the Río Casma, further south.
Interestingly though, David Johnson and Aurelio
Rodriguez (2009) consider the low, linear walls that outline such ancient roads
to be geoglyphs. Indeed, authentic prehistoric geoglyphs have been reported at
Pampa Colorada (see video) and I noticed some possible geoglyphs on the slopes
of Cerro Colorado (see Figure 6; see video). The geoglyphs at Pampa Colorado -
that can, with difficulty, be recognised with Google Earth today - are located
just west of Cerro Buenos Aires, about 3 km SE of the petroglyph site at El
Olivar and 360 m NE of the ancient road (blue square in Figure 3). They are
invisible from a nearby ancient road as they have been constructed on an almost
horizontal part of an alluvial fan, not on a hill slope. Conversely, according
to the description by Johnson and Rodriguez (2009) the geoglyphs described by
León Ascurra (1996) possibly depict a different set of geoglyphs (however
untraceable with Google Earth at the spot indicated by Johnson and Rodriguez
[2009: Fig. 2]).
However, I do not agree with the 2009-interpretation
of Johnson and Rodriguez that those low walls are geoglyphs and not only
because the location of the purported ‘geoglyphs’ and the ancient geoglyphs
(León’s geoglyphs) on their map (2009: Fig. 2) is incorrect. Although Johnson
and Rodriguez (2010) admit that ‘some of
these features could have been used as roads’, I nevertheless reject their
theories that any of those linear, parallel arranged structures are geoglyphs
(2009), simultaneously indicating the course of aquifers (2010). Their argument
that the roads are too wide is not valid as one cannot compare modern roads
with ancient, often ritually charged Andean roads. The fact that those roads
are ritually charged is evidenced by the occurrence of other structures (Tambos) along the road and, indeed,
petroglyphs (like at the petroglyph sites of El Olivar, El Vagón, Los Tres
Cerritos, Alto de la Guitarra, Queneto etc.).
In my opinion these (parallel) lines of boulders are
part of extensive ancient road systems (see for instance Proulx 1973: Fig. 11),
which are often much older than the so called Inca Roads, fragments of which
(almost invariably parallel to the coast) are traceable (often with difficulty)
from Lambayeque in the north via La Libertad well into Ancash over a distance
of at least 425 km (as the crow flies). However, short sections of similar
‘road’ structures may well have had a purely ritual character (especially at
the petroglyph complex of Queneto in Virú) and as such they might be compared with certain linear
geoglyphs (for instance near the towns of Palpa, Ingenio and Nazca in southern
Parts of a similar ancient road can also be traced
with Google Earth for about 28 km to the NW of El Olivar. This branch of the
ancient road, starting near El Olivar (orange arrow in Figure 3 and 8 in Figure
4), once connected the valley of the Río Sechín with the valley of the Río
Nepeña, further north. Interestingly, a section of a similar prehistoric road
in Nepeña seems to end only 300 m north of a possibly prehistoric, 18 m long geoglyph (?) that was reported for
the first time by the author in 2014 (Van Hoek 2015). I invite professional
archaeologists to inspect this interesting feature in the field. The UTM
co-ordinates of this purported geoglyph are available from the author
The fact that this ‘coastal’ route is found rather far
inland (here and elsewhere in northern Peru) is explained by the harsh climatic
and logistic conditions very near the coast. Fragments of similar ancient roads
can be traced nearer the coast (for example north of Sechín Alto). Possibly
those roads were abandoned due to worsening travelling-conditions in that area
(for instance caused by the intensification of fiercely gusting sands) and
perhaps for that reason the course of those roads shifted further inland. Also,
further inland rivers and streams tend to have more (often) water.
At some time the area around El Olivar probably formed
a key position on this important coastal route. The El Olivar nucleus may be
regarded to have been a crossroads of vertically-organised traffic (from the
coast into the highlands and vice versa)
and of horizontally-organised traffic (up and down the coastal route), with
probably the emphasis on horizontality (as the more suitable Casma Valley
further south provided a better route into the highlands).
The Red and White Contrast
A second explanation for the selection of the spot at
El Olivar for petroglyph production certainly has been the availability of
suitable rock surfaces; in this case the deeply patinated, ‘red’ boulders. This
type of red stone is very common in this part of the Andes. I am convinced that
the ancient Andean manufacturers preferred this type of red stone because the
newly made images clearly stood out in sharp contrast with the original,
patinated surface of the stone. In most cases the resulting image was clearly
white on a red background. This is what I would like to call the micro-level of
contrasting colours. Due to weathering illustrative examples do no longer occur
at El Olivar, but Boulder AP3-099 at Alto de Pitis, in the Majes Valley of
southern Peru (Figure 7), is a fine example. Indeed, many images fade or
disappear completely over time. Petroglyphs on Boulder CNG-019 at Cerro Negro
in Chicama (Figure 8) perfectly show the difference between deeply patinated
lines (red arrow) and fresh white lines (yellow arrow - a recently made or
recently re-pecked image?). This red-white contrast proves to be important in
the worldview of many ancient Andean cultures.
Figure 7. Boulder AP3-099 at Alto de Pitis, in the Majes Valley of
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
Figure 8. Boulder CNG-019 at Cerro Negro in Chicama, northern Peru.
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
Strikingly, the environment at El Olivar displays
another red-white contrast; on a macro-level this time. I notably observed that
the immediate neighbouring landscape also features the opposites (literally) of
red and white. The decorated red boulders are notably part of the small hill
(summit at about 410 m O.D.; the west end of Cerro Colorado - Red Hill) just east of the Cupisnique road. This
hill is covered by small and medium sized red boulders (Figure 9). Directly opposite the red slopes of Cerro Colorado and on the west side of the road is the
clearly white mountain top of Cerro
Cahuacucho (3 in Figure 4; its peak at about 556 m O.D.) that dominates the
site (Figure 10).
Figure 9. The red SE slopes of Cerro Colorado, looking east.
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
Figure 10. The clearly white mountain top of Cerro Cahuacucho, looking
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
But there is more. The petroglyph site of
El Olivar is located in a small pass (running NW-SE for 1.2 km between the red
hill and the white mountain). To the south, at a point where several ancient
structures are visible (including the possible Tambo; 11 in Figure 6), this pass opens onto the Pampa Colorado
(Red Pampa). To the north this pass directly connects with a large, east-west
running alluvial plain between Cerro Colorado and Cerro San Pedro in which
there is a sharp contrast between the higher parts of the alluvial fans (5 in
Figure 4) and the lower parts of the wide and shallow river bed of Quebrada
Tucushuanca (4 in Figure 4) in which the seasonal waters intermittently flow.
The higher parts consist of deeply red and brown stones (gravel and boulders),
while the dry riverbed comprises white boulders, gravel and sand. The contrast
is most eye-catching (Figure 5; see video).
If the situation at El Olivar were an isolated case, I
would not have mentioned those facts. Although at several places red boulder
fields have been ignored for petroglyph production, very many other instances
where red rock panels have been selected for petroglyph production are found in
this part of the Andes. Several of those sites are set in a landscape where
such contrasting elements of red and white occur or even dominate.
In numerous cases red petroglyph panels (boulders or
outcrops) are found in a white (grey or yellow) setting of sand and/or gravel,
like at Guayaquil, Las Piedras Negras, Pocos, Alto de la Guitarra, Huaca
Blanca, Alto de Pitis, Illomas, Gayalopo, Palamenco, Mollebaya Chico, La
Caldera, Tacar and Motocachy Pampa (Figure 11), just to name a few.
Figure 11. The boulder field of Motocachy Pampa, Ancash, northern Peru,
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
Other red boulders or boulder fields are found near
white, usually dry river beds, like the petroglyph sites of Santa Rita, Cerro Negro, Muralla and Pakra (Figure
Grande (Fig. 6), Palamenco, Motocachy Pampa, El Vagón, Los Tres Cerritos,
Queneto and of course El Olivar (Figure 4). At other sites red petroglyph
boulders contrast sharply with a backdrop of huge white dunes, like the sites
of Tolón in Jequetepeque (Figure 13) and Queneto and Quebrada de San Juan
(Figure 14) in Virú. Also the contrast between the high-altitude zone of red
stone selected for petroglyph production and the surrounding dark-grey
mountains at Chillihuay in southern Peru is striking.
Figure 12. Muralla, bordering the Río Pisco, central Peru, looking SW.
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
|Figure 13. The boulder field of Tolón, northern Peru, looking SW
towards a huge dune |
on top of Cerro Tira Larga. Photograph © by Maarten van
|Figure 14. The boulder field of Quebrada de San Juan, northern Peru,
towards a large dune on Cerro Zaraque. Photograph © by Maarten van
It is even possible that red stone was especially
selected at a spot where white, snow-capped volcanoes or mountain tops are
visible. This may be the case at the petroglyph sites of La Isla and Santa
Barbara on the Río Loa in northern Chile and, in particular, at Alto de Pitis
on the east bank of the Río Majes in southern Peru. The situation at Alto de
Pitis deserves more attention.
Alto de Pitis
What intrigued me deeply during my surveys in the
Majes Valley of southern Peru were the several contrasting colours that could
be seen at and from Alto de Pitis. Most fascinating and telling is the contrast
between the monotonous grey desert and two small, but most conspicuous Red
Spots in the hill sides opposite Alto de Pitis. The most eye-catching Red Spot
is just above the hamlet of Punta Colorada (Red Spot) (Figure 15). The second
Red Spot is located just above the hamlet of La Candelaria. These two Red Spots
(6.5 km apart) also seem to frame the ‘entrance’ to the enormous rock art
complex of Toro Muerto.
Many of the rocks at Alto de Pitis seem to have been
chosen by the ancient manufacturers of the petroglyphs because of the colours
of the stones themselves. Notably, many stones have colours that reflect the
Red Spots on the opposite hill sides (Figure 15). Several petroglyph stones
and/or rock panels are (almost) completely brownish-red, but the majority of boulders
has surfaces that show a mixture of areas with a deep brownish-red patination
that stands out against the rest of the yellowish or grey rock surface.
Especially when viewed against the grey sands, the red colour of the boulders
stands out and reminded me - in the field - of the Red Spots.
Figure 15. Petroglyph boulder at Alto de Pitis, Valle de Majes,
southern Peru, looking west.
by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
It is now very likely that this specific area was
chosen by ancient cultures because of those Red Spots and the red boulders.
Universally red is the colour of blood and it is possible that also the ancient
Majes people regarded the Red Spots as points where ‘the underworld was
bleeding’ and where ‘blood’ and/or supernatural power surfaced into the natural
world. Yet, another interpretation of the colours red and white is possible.
This reading involves the concept of symbolic inversion. For instance, the
Moche from northern Peru visually represented a specific aspect of dualism by opposition through contrasts of shape and
In this symbolic inversion, the colours red and white reflect the realms of respectively life and death, like the white of bleached
skeletons and the red of living
beings. The symbolism of colours is
even extended to the genital portions of skeletal individuals in Moche
iconography, whose penis-tips were invariably painted red; the source of
vitality is symbolized by the colour of life (Bourget & Taylor 2010). This specific dualistic concept of inversion
may also apply to the colours of the landscape around Alto de Pitis: the white desert represents death, like
bleached bones; the Red Spots represent life. Also interesting is the fact
that when the Majes manufactured their images, the initially un-patinated, deep white petroglyphs contrasted sharply with the patinated (often red) natural surface of the rock. But,
most importantly, there is more ‘white’
in the area. There is another remarkably white
and impressive landmark visible from Alto de Pitis.
In my opinion the remarkable concentration of (often
idiosyncratic) petroglyphs at Alto de Pitis can only be explained by the fact
that the white ice-cap of the
Nevado Coropuna is clearly visible. Indeed the long, ice-capped ridge of the
Nevado Coropuna, located about 82 km to the NNW, is clearly perceptible on
clear days. Besides its visibility from Alto de Pitis, another fact is
important. Notably, this volcano, at 6425 m O.D. the highest and biggest
volcano of Peru, was - and probably still is - one of the most important Sacred
Mountains (Apus) of the Andes in
Pre-Columbian times. I regard the ice-cap of the Nevado Coropuna as the major focal point where the mortal world
could make contact with the ‘World of the Living Dead’. There is no doubt in my
mind that the visibility of such a powerful ‘Apu’ would trigger certain rituals in the area, thus especially at
Alto de Pitis; rituals that also involved the production of a unique group of
rock art images (further details in Van Hoek 2013). Importantly, Alto de Pitis
is the only rock art site in the
Majes Valley where both the two Red Spots and the white ice-cap of the Nevado Coropuna can clearly be seen at the same time
from (often red coloured) boulders with white petroglyphs. Thus, Alto de Pitis
is the only spot in the Majes Valley
where the observation of the surrounding landscape involves a specific aspect
of dualism through opposition of
contrasting colours; the Red Spots
(life) and the white ice-cap of Apu Coropuna (death).
This life-death dualism may be appreciated in other
situations. The red boulder may denote death and the white symbol may represent
life. Likewise, the loose, drifting sands of the white desert dunes may be
regarded to symbolise life, while the solid, immovable boulder may represent
death. Equally, the white, dry river beds may stand for life, while the
adjoining red boulder fields represent death. As life and death are not
separate, conflicting phases in Andean cosmology (they are part of the cycle of
life), the concept of symbolic
inversion may equally dictate that the arid river bed represents death and the
red boulders life.
Andean Petroglyph Art and Yanantin
It proves that the contrasting colours ‘red’ and
‘white’ were, and still are, important in Andean worldview. Apart from the
initially white petroglyphs on red rock panels and opposing white and red
landmarks, there are more instances in the Andean legacy that emphasise the
importance of (those) contrasting colours. For instance, the Formative Period
Temple Complex of Kuntur Wasi in Cajamarca, northern Peru, features four
impressive and menacing sculptured stone faces in a sunken rectangular Plaza
with two white monoliths and two red monoliths facing each other. The
confined area of the rectangular Plaza unites those four monoliths in a perfect
harmonisation of a cross (Kato 1993: 226-227; Onuki 2008: 209. Dr. Rebecca
Stone-Miller (1995: 40) describes the Black and White Portal of the New Temple
at Chavín de Huántar as examples of duality and complementarity underscored
with natural colour.
Also during traditional despacho ceremonies the contrasting colours of red and white often
play an important role (Armstrong 1990). This ancient Andean ritual, which may be regarded to be a form of ‘Haywarisqa’
(the Quechua term for ‘despacho’),
is designed to show the Apu (Sacred
Mountain) how much the people valued their herds and also how well they have
taken care of their animals since the previous year. In certain despachos red wine is offered to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) while white
liquor (often pisco) is offered to
the Apus (the spirits of) the Sacred
Mountains. In other rituals red flower petals for Pacha Mama and white petals for the Apus are laid in certain patterns, depending on the intent (Beeler
2013). This dualism proves to be an important concept in Andean cosmology.
Stone-Miller defines Andean worldview by four
important features. One of those features is reciprocity, a feature of
corporate worldview; one part is countered by and connected to another. Stone
Miller continues to say that reciprocal or dualistic thinking is so pervasive
that it seems to have influenced visual perception. For instance, [the Incas]
saw the light and the dark [of the night sky] as equal opposites. Andean art has an emphasis on opposites
interlocked, on pairs, doubling and mirror-images of all kinds (1995: 14-16).
Dr. Hillary Webb formulates the same concept as follows, though markedly
differently (2012: 70): One of the most
well-known and defining characteristics of indigenous Andean thought is its
adherence to a “complementary dualism” in which the “opposites” of existence
are viewed as interdependent parts of a harmonious whole.
Importantly, Hillary Webb also narrates of a despacho where an Andean shaman used a large, white piece of paper, to create a kind of pattern upon (the two
fragments in italics - my emphases - will be explained further down). This
pattern was made from a variety of objects, each of which carried with it a
specific intent for the health of individual, community, and planet. One of the
first symbols to be included within the offering was a small figurine in the
form of a human being. The figure was split down the middle, with one half of
it coloured yellow [which may be read as
‘white’], the other half, pink [which
may be interpreted as ‘red’]. “This is yanantin,” the shaman told
Dr. Webb, “complementary opposites.” (2012: 74-75; remarks in italics between [
] have been added by me). This bi-coloured despacho figurine may be compared with the
impressive rock paintings of large anthropomorphic figures in the huge rock
shelter of San Borjita (PDF) on the Baja
California peninsula, Mexico. Perhaps the bi-coloured figures of San Borjita
express the same symbolism. Comparable bi-coloured rock paintings also have
been reported from the Columbia Plateau in NW of the USA (Keyser 1992: Figs 50
a and c).
Moreover, Amado Quispe, a young shaman and the primary research participant of Dr. Webb stated: For us, yanantin doesn’t focus on the differences between two beings. That is what disconnects them. Instead, we focus on the qualities that brought them together. … One on its own can’t hold everything, can’t take care of everything. Not only are they great together, but they need to be together. … When there is another, it represents extra strength for both. (Webb 2012: 75).
Merging the concept of yanantin with the
rituals of petroglyph production is the next logical step in my line of
reasoning. Although I spoke of ‘red’ and ‘white’ throughout this paper, the
colours do not really matter. In this paper, it is the contrast that
matters. For instance, the intense black and shiny boulders at the petroglyph
site of Parque Diaguita in western Argentina once literally and metaphorically
reflected the same meaningful contrast when symbols were pecked out of the
deeply patinated surface. This contrast has almost completely disappeared at
the moment, but re-appears when observed from a certain angle. Boulder
DIA-W-008 at Parque Diaguita (Figure 16; many more photos available in my video) offers a good example of two
different types of patinated images, the more deeply patinated images are best
visible with reflecting sunlight (Van Hoek 2014b). At Yonán in northern Peru
the petroglyphs have been manufactured on grey-blue panels. Toro Muerto, also
in Peru, has many grey, yellowish and whitish panels. However, freshly made
images are almost invariably much whiter. Yet, I still argue that the red-white
contrast is the most desired and the most meaningful contrast in Andean
|Figure 16. Boulder DIA-W-008
at the petroglyph site of Parque Diaguita in western Argentina, looking
west. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
ritual of image-making resulted in a bright symbol on a dark background; an
ensemble for which can also be stated: “Not only are they great together, but
they need to be together” (Amado Quispe, in: Webb 2012). The contrasting
colours are not in conflict with each other; on the contrary, they build a
harmonious whole in which the natural qualities of the red stone are connected
with the anthropic meaning of the newly created, white symbol. The red stone is
part of and may be regarded to represent/symbolise Pacha Mama, while the white symbol may represent a message to the
spirits of the Apus. Thus,
simultaneously, the whole picture of
the complementary opposites (red boulder and white image) conveys a message. The white symbol would be meaningless without
the red surface of the stone that supports it and vice versa.
Interestingly, those messages are
largely (or completely) incomprehensible for us western researchers and even
for many modern Andeans, as both the contrast and the meaning notably fade over
time. The naturally fading symbols, but also the changing worldview, may be the
reason why images have often been re-pecked, altered and even obliterated (Van
Hoek 2005, 2006) by members of the same culture or by later cultures. Sadly, it
also explains vandalism, which is so damaging to the invaluable legacy of
Art and Information
Interestingly, the ancient Andeans applied - without
realising this, of course - the concept of entropy, which - in physics - is a
fundamental part of the second law of thermodynamics. Simply said this concept
reads: the more entropy, the more
disorder and the more probability. Thus, chaos is a more likely situation.
However, also in information-science entropy is a measure of disorder or chaos,
and then it can be read as: the lower the entropy, the less chaos and the more information. An example will
clarify this. A completely white piece of
paper (compare this with the despacho ritual mentioned above) conveys no information; there is no difference; all
parts of the paper are equal. This state of complete lack of information
represents maximum entropy, total chaos or complete disorder. Only when
contrast is added onto the paper (for instance in the form of black letters, a
colour-drawing or a pattern of objects as used in a despacho) the whole (paper and pattern) conveys
information, thus decreasing the entropy or chaos.
Then it does not matter whether the pattern is
(in)decipherable to a western rock art researcher. The pattern conveys
information that is only legible and meaningful for the manufacturer and for
the initiated and also for the informed participants/observers. No matter how
simple or how chaotic a petroglyph pattern is (see for instance Figure 17), for
the manufacturer it represented vital (!) information that she or he wished to
share with her or his gods, his or her ancestors, spirits or (certain) fellow
members of the group. Importantly, the creation of petroglyphs (in fact the
creation of any kind of rock art) increases the amount of information and thus
inevitably decreases chaos. Why is
this conclusion so important for Andean (and also global) cosmology?
|Figure 17. Boulder MIM-010 at
the petroglyph site of Miculla in southern Peru, looking west. |
observant observer may spot at least two zoomorphic figures hidden in the chaos
(the brain is trained to look for information). Photograph © by
Maarten van Hoek, 2015.
The Andean physical world is one of the most restless
and active areas on earth. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, tidal
waves, El Niño's, droughts and floods repeatedly confronted Andean societies
with chaos and disorder. On top of that, military forces often invaded (other)
Andean cultures, which added to the chaos and stress. On the other hand, the
natural world supplied (and still supplies) an abundance of seafood and fertile
river valleys (immediately bordered by barren deserts). This strongly
contrasting dualism of negative forces and positive properties shaped the
religious beliefs of almost every Andean society. As a result, an important
property of Andean ritual concerns the concept of maintaining a cosmic order,
which involves mediation of the opposing forces to create a condition of
harmonious balance. However, mediation never resulted in an enduring
equilibrium and disasters occurred, time after time. From an Andean perspective
such disasters happened because of human disregard of the religious tenets,
which disturbed the delicate balance. Then a (part-time) shaman or a
(full-time) priest had to enter the supernatural world in order to mediate the
dualistic forces and to direct the powers to benefit the community.
Consequently, one had to find a way to communicate with both the supernatural
and the common people in a convincing and enduring way.
In this respect, it must be realised that ancient
Andean societies did not have a system of writing. All events are perpetuated
through verbal communication and symbolic representation. The repeated ritual
re-enactment of beliefs and their representation through selected imagery served
a religious purpose and ensured the circulation to the entire community. Rock
art is one of the most important means of communication in Andean societies and
rock art sites certainly are sacred places where repeated ritual execution of selected imagery expressed the concern of
maintaining the cosmic equilibrium and preventing chaos. The images at El
Olivar prove to be no exception. The red and white contrasts at this site (and
many others) once were part of the goal to maintain the cosmic equilibrium.
El Olivar is a petroglyph site typical for this part
of the Andes. Itself being a sacred site, it is associated with religious
centres (Huacas) in a fertile river
valley and simultaneously with infrastructure that crosses the barren desert
connecting lush river valleys (although there is no scientific evidence yet
that the art is indeed contemporary with either the Huacas or the infrastructure). But it is obvious that El Olivar is
located on a crossroads of horizontally and vertically organised traffic of
goods and people and thus also of religious concepts. The site, the
(petroglyph) rocks and the images, all were important and revered in ancient times.
Even today several Andean rock art sites are venerated
by local people. It is telling that the north end of the Cupisnique Road at El
Olivar has been turned into a modern cemetery with a large Christian cross
inside (see video). Moreover, Llosa Giraldo (2011) includes a photograph of
Panel OVR-002A in front of which is a assortment of coca leaves that he claims
to be offerings (Se puede observar còmo
todavia se le hace "pagos" con coca y cigarrillo a estos personajes. [the ‘personajes’ being the enigmatic
anthropomorphic petroglyphs on that boulder at El Olivar; see video]).
Interestingly, coca leaves also embody the concept of yanantin, of complementary opposites, as they
have a brighter (silvery) and a darker (green) side (Armstrong 1990: 125).
Moreover, the initially white symbols of El Olivar
were manufactured on red and blackish boulders, while the surrounding landscape
still reflects the white-red contrast. Red boulder and white image, but also
red landmark (for instance a hill) and white landmark (for instance a dry
riverbed or a dune) are complementary opposites in Andean cosmology; they are yanantin. Those opposites must not been seen as emphasising the
differences, but as two opposing elements that need to be together in order to
form a harmonious whole, whether this whole is a petroglyph boulder or a
landscape. In my opinion the ritual of manufacturing and/or observing this whole (symbol and background) can be
interpreted as a way (literally and metaphorically) to create and convey
information in order to decrease the chaos in the chaotic Andean world.
I would like to thank Mrs Giuliana Melendez and
especially Mrs Lucha Mendiola Lomparte, both from Casma, for making it possible
for us to explore the Casma area and especially the Sechín valley. Without the
help and determination of Mrs Lucha Mendiola Lomparte and the much appreciated
assistance of several locals from El Olivar we would never have been able to
survey El Olivar. I am also indebted to Mrs Meg Beeler for her permission to
use information from her web site, and to Dr. David Johnson and Dr. Carlos
Zapata Benites for providing useful information about Pampa
Colorada. As ever I thank my wife Elles for her assistance in the field and her
support at home.
comentarios? escriba a: firstname.lastname@example.org—
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