In the desert along the coast of Peru sits an incredible ancient stone complex called Chankillo.
Chankillo is comprised of a massive stone temple and several other stone buildings, with one of its most intriguing features being thirteen large stone towers that have been discovered to mark out the path of the sun throughout the year.
Its possible astronomical significance was originally mentioned in the 1940s by Thor Heyerdahl in his book The Kon-Tiki Expedition, and in 2007 Archaeologist Ivan Ghezzi and Archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles brought this discovery to life through their research.
They found that on the winter solstice, (being in the southern hemisphere the winter solstice is June 21) the sun travels between each of the towers as it moves along its annual path, climbing up the towers and ending outside of the last tower on the summer solstice on December 21.
After the summer solstice, the sun heads back down through the towers and ends again at the winter solstice.
The towers follow the horizon running along a north-south line and were built to have a slight bend at the southernmost point. Each tower had stairs on either side, making it possible to walk up and down through each one along the line of towers. Ghezzi observed that many of the steps may have been too steep to climb, and suggested they were for “ritual, rather than practical importance.”1
Remarkably, the thirteen stone towers still align to the path of the sun (within a couple of days) even today.
In this episode of the BBC program Wonders of the Universe with Brian Cox, there are some stunning shots of the sun coming up between the towers:
Interestingly, nearby the towers is another stone building named by archaeologists as the Western Observation Point. Along the side of this building runs a 40 meter long corridor that leads to an opening which Ghezzi believes was designed intentionally to have no door, since it lacks “barholds – niches where a stone pin could be tied ﬁrmly into the masonry, presumably for attaching supports for a door.”2
At the end of the corridor there is a perfect and unobstructed view of the thirteen towers, making it an incredible spot to watch the sunrise during the solstices.
Ghezzi writes, “excavations around the opening have revealed a concentration of offerings of ritually smashed pottery, shell, and lithics scattered at ﬂoor level, conﬁrming that signiﬁcant elements of ritual were involved in the process of passing through the corridor and standing at its end to observe the towers.”3
Several other structures could view the sun’s journey along the towers from different vantage points, which according to Ghezzi, were built taking into account the solar alignments of the towers and the path of the sun during the solstices.
The building to the east of the towers, (called the storage complex/administrative building) for example, has only one entrance. Ghezzi and Ruggles discovered that the southernmost tower, “tower thirteen,” aligns to the setting sun on the winter solstice on June 21st when viewed from that entrance.4
Similarly, they found that the sun could be seen descending over and setting just to the left of the temple from the viewpoint of the observation buildings below. They also found that the main axis of the temple was built in alignment with the summer solstice.
Here is a video about Chankillo featuring Ivan Ghezzi:
Sadly, like many communities who were practicing the religion of the sun, it seems as if the people who built Chankillo disappeared abruptly. Ghezzi suggests there is even evidence that this was due to some violent conflict from an outside power and that there is archaeological evidence to suggest that Chankillo was purposefully buried and damaged.
He says, “excavations have clearly revealed the intentional destruction of the inner temple and its religious images, followed by its entombment beneath a thick layer of rock and debris.”5
- Chankillo, Ivan Ghezzi and Clive L. N. Ruggles, p. 811
- Chankillo, Ivan Ghezzi and Clive L. N. Ruggles, p. 818
- Chankillo, Ivan Ghezzi and Clive L. N. Ruggles, p. 815
- Ghezzi I (2006) Religious warfare at Chankillo. In: Isbell W, Silverman H (eds) Andean archae-ology III. Springer, New York, pp 67–84