Robots Exploring This Ancient Mega-Temple Found A Subterranean Maze That Hosted A Sinister Ritual

A team of experts are cramped in an underground chamber with a network of mysterious tunnels leading from it. It’s a stone-built subterranean labyrinth in the Peruvian Andes, created more than 3,000 years ago by a lost civilization. The scientists launch a four-wheeled mini-robot with a camera and lights down one of the narrow passages, which is too small for a human to enter. And what the high-tech machine reveals is both macabre and deeply shocking.

This extraordinary network of tunnels, which was burrowed out three millennia ago, is at a place called Chavin de Huantar in modern-day Peru. It was built by one of the oldest known advanced pre-Columbian cultures, a people whom archaeologists call the Chavin. The underground labyrinth is actually part of a wider temple complex in the Andes mountains, and it sits at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet.

The leader of the archaeology team, Stanford University’s John Rick, described the Chavin de Huantar site to the BBC in 2016. “Chavin was built in a risky spot, in a highly flood-prone location,” he observed. “They were aware of the risk of floods, and they built towards these risks and not away from them. The monumentality was not only to impress visitors but also to tell them that the creators were capable of challenging nature successfully. And they did very well with it.”

The site of Chavin de Huantar sits astride the meeting point of two rivers: the Huanchecsa and the Mosna. It’s 150 miles or so from the Peruvian capital, Lima. In the distance, the snow-capped peak of Mount Huanstan is just about visible. This is a mountain that the Chavin people would have known at the time they pursued their mysterious – and sometimes barbaric – rites at the sacred temple.

As well as the incredible tunnel network, the site at Chavin de Huantar includes some spectacular stone constructions above ground. The remains of these squares and structures attest to the Chavin’s advanced abilities in masonry. They were also accomplished artists and many structures are adorned with ornate carvings cut from the raw stone with great skill.

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Some of the granite structures are more than 80 feet tall and they’re gathered around a spacious plaza. Yet the most intriguing feature of the site is undoubtedly the labyrinthine network of tunnels and rooms. The Chavin shamans would’ve used this space to celebrate their holiest rituals – customs that were sometimes brutal.

The experts working at Chavin de Huantar aimed to find out how the people of this long-lost ancient civilization lived. The underground passages and chambers, they believed, could hold some significant clues. And what they found out about the Chavin people’s customs was nothing less than horrifying. It was a discovery that hinted at the cruelty of this advanced ancient civilization.

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So just who were these Chavin people? To put things in context, the civilization they created came some ten centuries before that of the more familiar Incas. The height of Chavin culture extended over an era known as the Early Horizon from around 900 B.C. to 200 B.C. Before that, it’s reckoned that there was already human settlement at the site from as far back as 3000 B.C.

The Chavin culture got going around 1200 B.C. and its territory, centered on the Andes mountains in modern Peru, stretched from the Amazon all the way to the Pacific. Their society included a sophisticated system of worship, widespread commercial activity and a thriving artistic culture. And from around 900 B.C. the city at Chavin de Huantar was the main center for their civilization.

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Over the period of Chavin de Huantar dominance, experts believe that three separate societies lived in the city. It developed into a major religious center and exerted a key influence on the culture of the time. It also had an apparent impact on other later pre-Columbian societies.

The Chavin people created a complex set of religious beliefs controlled by a hierarchy of shamans or priests. At its height, the city was home to something between 2,000 to 3,000 people and it occupied an area of some 100 acres. The site includes two principal religious buildings: the Old Temple, built around 750 B.C., and the New Temple, which was constructed some 250 years later.

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The Old Temple consists of various structures laid out in a horse-shoe formation with a courtyard at its center. Around the square the stone walls are decorated with strange creatures that blend the anatomies of humans and animals such as serpents and giant cats. But the main, and markedly sinister, symbol lies in the tunnels beneath the courtyard.

This is the 15 feet-high stone column called the Lanzon monolith. It takes the shape of a strange beast covered in serpents and armed with an alarming array of talons and tusks. Experts believe this may have been where pilgrims left gifts. Conduits in the chamber that houses the Lanzon would’ve contained rapidly rushing water, making a deafening din to add to the supernatural ambience.

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The New Temple exhibits a very different set of stone sculptures. These idols are stone heads, and there are around 100 of them. The heads each vary slightly, starting off as recognizably human but slowly transforming into jaguars. We can imagine that the pilgrims who hiked through the mountains of the Andes to Chavin de Huantar must’ve found these strange sculptures awesome – frightening, even.

Our knowledge of the religious practices of the Chavin is gleaned from the reliefs that adorn the temples, as well as from the stone structures themselves. These include the tunnels dug beneath the city. As Rick told the BBC in 2016, “What makes Chavin special is that the priesthood left an excellent record.”

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“This stage in society is generally not well recorded. Many of these formative periods are destroyed and rarely do we see it so well preserved,” Rick added. “When Chavin fell as a cultural system, there wasn’t much damage. The underground spaces were effectively sealed up.” And that preservation of the past has revealed some gruesome facts about religious life in Chavin de Huantar.

Researchers believe that the Staff Deity was the most significant god for the Chavin people. And there’s a statue of this sacred force in Chavin de Huantar’s New Temple. It’s said to represent an abundant harvest, which was an important notion for a society that depended on farming crops. It also seems that the Staff Deity is part female and part male.

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Experts believe that religion in Chavin de Huantar involved remarkable visual and aural displays. There was room for crowds of well over 1,000 to attend such events. Shell trumpets would have serenaded the worshipping crowd, and priests would have sprung up unexpectedly from hidden passages. The whole experience was accentuated with hallucinogens derived from local vegetation.

Speaking to the BBC, Rick elaborated on the evidence of the use of psychoactive substances. “We have representations of the plants with people carrying the cactus. In the same stone art we see the effects,” he explained. “A number of the plants are taken as snuffs – it’s very irritating. We have representation of mucus flow, wide staring eyes and other features like pain, which can be matched with drug users still using these drugs in the Amazon basin.”

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“And we have paraphernalia: snuffing tubes, tablets, mortars,” Rick continued. “The drugs fit hand in glove with what was going on at Chavin. They were credibility drugs. They’re not the most extreme where you’re completely out of your world – the users weren’t catatonic. You live with them and become more impressionable. They’re ideal for this system.”

Rick then described the ceremonies at Chavin de Huantar, “It was a convincing system. And it pushed the innovation of advanced technology. They were using hydraulics, acoustics, mirrors, psychoactive drugs,” the professor said. “They made water dance and sing by its motion through canals. The creators of the temple were pushing their scientific understanding forwards. This is a way of showing off but in a very serious – cultic – sense.”

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And people came from far and wide to take part in these cult ceremonies. Some may have journeyed hundreds of miles to attend rites at Chavin de Huantar. “At the time, [it] would have been an extraordinary distance to travel,” Rick observed. “This leads us to think the people that came here were important figures. This was a cult for the secondary elite who were now emerging and for whom Chavin fit very well in their world view.”

Those who took the trouble to journey to Chavin de Huantar would’ve been expected to arrive bearing gifts. Rick suggests that the more elaborate the offering a pilgrim brought, the greater access to the temples’ innermost chambers they’d have been allowed. People may even have been asked to help in the construction of parts of the sacred buildings.

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As we’ve seen, the team of archaeologists and technicians led by Professor Rick were keen to learn more about the mysterious Chavin people. Above all, they wanted to explore the network of underground passages and channels that lie beneath the surface structures of the city. But that was far easier said than done.

The underground labyrinth did have chambers that could be accessed by simply climbing down a ladder. But there were many other passages too narrow for humans. Some of the tunnels were also far from safe, with the prospect of a cave-in a real risk. And it was engineering students at Stanford University who came up with a solution to help the archaeologists in their quest: robots.

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Rick highlighted the problems facing the archaeologists in a short film made by Stanford University. “Robots were a natural in some sense. Many of these underground spaces are not easily entered, that’s one aspect,” he explains in the footage. “But there are spaces that we don’t have a lot of confidence in – the level of risk here is huge.”

The engineers built two types of remote-controlled robot to explore the Chavin de Huantar tunnels. One was a “snake” designed by Stanford PhD scholar Margaret Coad. This flexible tubular gadget, called Vinebot, is controlled with jets of compressed air. It can extend and, with a camera at the front, allow the operator views of inaccessible crevices and channels.

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The second type of robot came in the form of a miniature four-wheel contraption with lights and a camera. A wire connects the tiny truck to a laptop that displays images from the remote-controlled explorer. Two Stanford students, Daniel Chan and Jack Lane, built these clever gizmos, which became known as Chavin Rovers.

Speaking in the Stanford film, Rick says, “We think we can start to get into the mindset of Chavin. What they understood, what they were trying to do. What their architecture was up to. These underground spaces are key.” And now it was time to see how far the Vinebot and the Chavin Rovers could help in this search for knowledge.

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One day in 2018, Coad arrives at the Chavin site to use the Vinebot in the field for the very first time. Perhaps betraying some last-minute nerves, she says to the camera, “Let’s hope it works!” It’s an anxious moment for any inventor when their baby has its first outing. But it operates just as hoped, snaking its way into dark passages unseen by a human eye for 3,000 years.

Now it’s the turn of one of the Chavin Rovers to show what it can do. It trundles down a tunnel, attached by its umbilical to a laptop. It quickly spots something that looks very interesting, set among a litter of ancient broken pot shards. The tunnel is just wide enough for Daniel Chan to crawl in.

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The visuals have confirmed that it’ll be safe for Chan, so he inches along the narrow passage on his belly. Now the Rover is filming him as he retrieves a 2,500-year-old pot. Miraculously, it’s entirely intact, even the elongated, slender neck. Chan is clearly excited, “Wow!” he exclaims. It’s a fantastic find. But not everything the archaeologists come across is a source of joy.

As they explore the tunnels – 36 have now been mapped – they come across three sets of human remains. These skeletons from 3,000 years ago represent the most notable finds there over the past half-century. That’s because they’re the first Chavin interments that’ve ever been discovered and so have tremendous significance.

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And these sets of human remains appear to have a shocking tale to tell. Speaking about the bones to British newspaper the Daily Mirror in 2018, Rick said, “We have found at least three people in one of the galleries. One of them is a small boy, the other one is a teenager and the other one is a young man, between 20 and 30 years old.” Shockingly, though, Rick went on to say that these ancient Chavin people had most likely met their ends as human sacrifices.

Rick’s belief that the deceased had been the victims of ritual sacrifice is based on the context they were found in. The remains had been left in their last resting places face downwards with rocks heaped on them. As Rick pointed out, this seemingly callous treatment of a dead body was “not very honorable.”

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Speaking to the Archaeology News Network website, Rick again shared his thoughts about the discovery of these three bodies. He said, “So we have solved part of the mystery about where the people of Chavin buried their dead. I don’t believe it was customary to do it in the galleries, but sometimes they did.” And Rick believes they may in future find more human burials in as yet unexplored galleries that have similar configurations.

So why would the priests of Chavin de Huantar have slain these individuals? Rick has some interesting thoughts about the system of beliefs that the Chavin elite created and administered. He theorizes that the framework of our modern sets of beliefs have many significant similarities to those of the ancient Chavin people.

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“If we look at our society with an understanding of where authority comes from, it makes our own symbols and architecture more understandable,” Rick told the BBC. “Basic symbols like flags – dynasties, countries. How many company presidents – or country presidents for that matter – come to power through subtle group activities, actions, images that convince people they have the right to run the show and have salaries 1,000 times greater than their workers? We all have the belief system that hierarchies are credible.”

So the human sacrifices and the religious rites that accompanied these gruesome acts may well have been part of an organized system to control the Chavin population. Rick then expanded upon his thoughts about the workings of the priestly Chavin elite and their relevance to us today. He explained, “The things that were built into the site to make it impressive then, still are impressive now.”

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“When we walk into the site to excavate, the feelings of awe and privilege and fascination are not purely of our own invention,” Rick continued. “We’re still getting the message from these priests 3,000 years ago. It emphasizes common ideas. We’re not different from humans 3,000 years ago. When you put something in the ground or on the ground, the ceremonies keep going on. Just not in ways they could ever have dreamed of.”

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