by John W. Rick (University of Stanford)

Original Article:
2006 Chavín de Huántar: Evidence for an evolved shamanism. San Diego Museum Papers 44: Mesas and Cosmologies in the Central Andes, pp. 101-112.
Available at Amazon.


Chavín de Huántar is an early monumental site in the Peruvian Andes that has long been associated with shamanism in the literature of anthropology and Andean archaeology. The site can be described as a series of temples that were founded in all likelihood well before 1,200 B.C., and saw a continuous program of expansion and elaboration until somewhere around 600-500 B.C., after which investment in further construction and ritual activity rapidly declined. (Good, although contrasting general sources on Chavín are Rowe 1962, Lumbreras 1989, Burger 1984, 1992, Kembel and Rick 2004, Rick 2005.)

Although it is one of many such centers of the Central Andean Formative Period—and not the largest—it can be distinguished by the complexity of its architecture. In particular, it has a complex of underground passageways known as galleries—and a large amount of finely crafted carved stone “art” used to decorate a variety of architectural contexts (Figure 2). The prominent and widely-recognized iconography of Chavín led to the classification of a wide variety of styles of art, in materials including ceramic, metal, textile, wood, shell, and mud friezes, as belonging to a supposed Chavín “culture” (Burger 1988). Elements of this broad-ranging, but stylistically affiliated corpus have been linked to shamanism, and by extension the prominent sites of the period, including Chavín itself, have been inferred to have seen shamanistic activity. This article will review this claimed association of Chavín de Huántar with shamanism, summarize the evidence related to this belief, and explore the nature of any such activity that might have taken place at the site.

An important caveat to this article is that I do not claim to be a highly knowledgeable student of shamanism, and so I am not attempting to update general perspectives on the subject. It is more than apparent that this is a voluminous and controversial subject matter, in which modern attitudes towards shamanism and a variety of stances about the nature or existence of shamanism in different times and places make writing about this topic particularly treacherous. My point in engaging the subject is primarily to contribute to the understanding of shamanistic-like activity at Chavín, and more particularly, to point at ways that shamanism might be transformed and used to promote socio-political change in societies that are witnessing the beginnings of strong authority. My argument will be that while there may well have been shamanism behind the material culture and function of this center, it was far removed in character and intention from most classic examples of shamanism.


The prehistoric case for shamanism is always complicated by the inferential processes of archaeology—from the material record we must infer behavior and (tentatively) belief, and then from those inferences come to a further conclusion about whether shamanism can be asserted. Chavín de Huántar is frequently cited as a locus of evidence for shamanistic behavior, but it is really only a few repeatedly cited phenomena that form the basis for this claim. I will quickly review and update this evidence en route to a more in-depth evaluation of the possible role of shamanism in Chavín. But first some further understandings about shamanism and archaeology are essential.


Rick, John W.
Associate Professor at University of Standford
Ph.D. Michigan, 1978
John Rick’s research focuses on prehistoric archaeology and anthropology of hunter-gatherers and initial hierarchical societies, stone tool analysis and digital methodologies, Latin America, Southwestern U.S. Rick’s major research efforts have included long-term projects studying early hunting societies of the high altitude puna grasslands of central Peru, and currently he directs a major research project at the monumental World Heritage site of Chavín de Huántar aimed at exploring the foundations of authority in the central Andes. Other field projects include work on early agricultural villages in the American Southwest, and a recently-initiated project on the Preclassic and Early Classic archaeology of the Guatemalan highlands near Panajachel, Atitlan. Current emphasis is on employing dimensional analytical digital techniques to the study of landscape and architecture, and on exploring the contexts and motivations for the development of sociopolitical inequalities.