Chankillo rivals Stonehenge as true solar observatory

Chankillo rivals Stonehenge as true solar observatory

I’m sorry, but really… Stonehenge, schmoan-henge! Want to visit a real monumental prehistoric solar observatory? Check out Chankillo, on Peru’s northern coast, the oldest, grandest one in the known world.

Located near Casma, about three hours north of Caral via the Panamerican Highway, Chankillo is where a mysterious, ancient culture plotted and interpreted the movements of the sun.

Archaeologist Ivan Ghezzi, director of the Chankillo project, along with fellow archaeologist Clive Ruggles proved in 2007 what Thor Heyerdahl famously theorized in his book Kon-Tiki six decades earlier: that Chankillo’s 13 ridged towers were actually a solar observatory.

Ghezzi called it “a great Eureka moment.”

Witness the 2½-millennia-old solar calendar of Chankillo on your Peru Vacation. Image courtesy of the World Monuments Fund.
The July 21 Solstice demarcated with the rising of the sun. The towers of Chankillo are markers that span the annual rising and setting arcs of the sun, as it gradually shifts north and south along the horizon during the course of the year.

Ghezzi and his team are in the process of applying for Chankillo to be recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. He gave Peru’s largest daily newspaper El Comercio an extensive Q&A interview about the 2,300 year old solar observatory, which is translated and excerpted here:

What makes Chankillo an observatory?

“We can demonstrate with evidence that this sector of Chankillo, what we call the solar observatory, has as its main and perhaps only function, astronomical observation. There are many places in the world popularized as observatories like Stonehenge, but there is only one alignment that can be observed and that the scientific community accepts is the winter solstice. So how can one argue that the main function of all that construction is astronomical if only one day of the year serves to determine a date.”

Chankillo vs Stonehenge as oldest solar observatory

So, it can’t be said categorically that Stonehenge is an observatory? Ghezzi argues, no, it cannot.

It could be a ritual, funerary or perhaps religious space, he said, built with an alignment to mark and emphasize the winter solstice in Europe.

“There are many such examples of that, even in Peru. In a somewhat lax way they are using the term observatory, but what they mean is that they contain one or some astronomical alignments. If a site allows to identify the solstices, equinoxes or other dates throughout the year, as for example Cerro del Gentil (of the Paracas Culture) in the Chincha Valley, we know that it would be a point of observation of the sunset on several Paracas buildings. Two of these buildings coincide with the solstices and equinoxes.

Chankillo is a Solar Observatory Throughout the Year

Chankillo is the only one that spans the entire year and the only solar horizon calendar we know that covers the entire annual sun route. This is the main and perhaps exclusive purpose, the most authentic observatory we can see in the world.

“The calendars of many societies are based on the astronomical movements mainly of the moon and the sun. Many societies adopted a solar calendar, others have invented them on their own. In a natural way the sun orients to a calendar of approximately 365 days. It is not an exact figure, that is why we have leap years. For what we know as ‘year’, we could also call “solar cycle” which is the time it takes the Earth to go around the sun.”

The 13 towers of the solar observatory of Chankillo. On December 21 the sun will appear through the last tower marking the solstice.
The 13 towers of the Chankillo astronomical complex line up from north to south along the length of the ridge and have stairs on the north and south sides to climb to the top. (Photo: El Comercio)

What does the solstice look like in Chankillo?

“Chankillo has a row of 13 towers. The solstices are always the extremes. In December it goes out through tower 13 and in June through tower 1. Although we don’t know exactly what it meant, we have seen that the solstices were clearly marked and probably as the most important moments. Then it returns along the same route. From a fixed point, which we call the observatory, the sun will always come out between the towers, it will never come out of that range. The space between towers 6 and 7 is where the equinox comes out; that means the change to another station.”

How exactly did the Chankillo observatory work?

“In the nomination to UNESCO to be named World Heritage of Humanity, we have called it ‘the solar observatory and its ceremonial center.’ This means that the solar observatory is a sector of a larger site that we call Chankillo and that it is a ceremonial center with other buildings. For example, there is a fortified building that we believe contains a kind of solar temple. There is a space that seems public, where thousands of people would have gathered to celebrate solar rites and other things on fixed dates, surely determined by the observatory. But at the center of this great ensemble is the solar observatory. It is made up of several buildings. The most outstanding are the thirteen towers.”

Do we know what culture inhabited Chankillo or built it?

“No, there could be more than twenty. The pre-Hispanic world had hundreds of cultures. What happens is that we cannot use cultures in the freest way. But we know of some societies that existed that have left some evidence, like the society that built Chankillo; however, we don’t know the aspects of his daily life. So, research does not allow us to talk about the Chankillo culture, because, unlike the Moche or the Nazca, we do not have an image of the Chankillo culture.”

Can I visit Chankillo? Absolutely!

My friend, the intrepid South American explorer, Glen David Short calls Chankillo “One of the most desolate, haunting, yet ultimately fascinating places I have ever been to.

“No other tourists, just a hot desert wind whistling into your ears and grit into your eyes,” he writes. “Totally impressive.”

While Chankillo is off Peru’s beaten tourist path, it’s location makes it a logical northward stop following Caral, the ancient ceremonial center in the Supe Valley.

Pre-Inca Civilizations - Caral Ruins
Caral, the residential and ritual center representing one of the oldest known civilizations in the Americas. Added in 2009 to the list of  World Heritage sites by UNESCO, radiocarbon analysis confirmed that the site developed between the years 3000 to 1800 B.C. It’s development around the same time as Mesa-America, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China ranks Peru as the world’s sixth Cradle of Civilization.

From Chankillo, you can head east, up into the Andes to Huaraz and the gorgeous Cordillera Blanca, a majestic ice-peaked mountain range, containing about 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers. Or you can continue north along the coast for a more complete Peruvian archaeological program, visiting amazing Moche and Chimú sites.

Let us know if you would like us to design a custom archaeology program to visit Chankillo for your trip to Peru. Just reach out to us through Whatsapp or the Contact Us Now form below.

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Authored by: Rick Vecchio

Rick Vecchio, Fertur’s director of development and marketing, was educated at the New School for Social Research and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He worked for Pacifica Radio WBAI and as a daily reporter for newspapers in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. Then in 1996, he decided it was time to realize a life-long dream of traveling to Peru. He never went back. While serving as Peru country manager for the South American Explorers from 1997-1999, he fell in love with Fertur's founder, Siduith Ferrer, and they married. Over the next six years, he worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press. Meanwhile, Siduith built the business, which he joined in January 2007. Now he designs custom educational and adventure tour packages for corporate and institutional clients, oversees Fertur’s Internet platform and occasionally leads special trips, always with an eye open for a good story to write about.

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