By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Archaeologists recently recovered the mural of a water deity that was created on the side of an ancient adobe temple by the early Cupisnique culture, dating back over three millennia. Where did this mysterious pre-Columbian culture originate?
An artistic culture in northern Peru known as sprang up around 1200 BCE. It was known for its beautiful, ornate pottery, especially its stirrup-spout bottles and pots. Spider gods and a fanged deity regularly adorned the works of art. The Cuspisnique artists and their culture remained a mystery until the 1972 discovery of an archaeological complex located on the northern coast of Peru, called Caballo Muerto.
Archaeologists recently found an ancient mural in northern Peru, likely Cupisnique in origin, depicting a knife-wielding spider god associated with rain and fertility.
In his video series Lost Worlds of South America, Dr. Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center, discussed the pre-Columbian indigenous culture of the Cupisnique and its origins.
Tip Me Over and Pour Me Out
According to UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, Chavín de Huántar is an archaeological site in Peru dating back to 1500 BCE that also gave its name to an artistic culture that was born there. Its influence spread along the West Coast of South America.
“Chavín’s influence was clear in the coastal valleys from a long-known form of pottery we call Cupisnique,” Dr. Barnhart said. “These were beautiful pieces in a very, very distinctive form. The form is termed a ‘stirrup vessel’—it has a bulbous bottom, but then on top it has this spout that’s shaped like a stirrup, so it comes up at two points and then up to a final neck that allows liquid to be poured out of it.”
According to Dr. Barhnart, their unique form had never been seen before, but subsequently appeared again and again through the time of the Incas. To make matters more mysterious, even though the Cupisnique pottery wasn’t Chavín-made, the Chavín influence is there; and furthermore, antiquities markets were flooded with Cupisnique artwork, but nobody knew where it had come from. For decades of archaeological study, the only clue to its origins was its Amazonian-inspired religious imagery.
“In 1972, the site of Caballo Muerto was found in the upper Moche Valley,” Dr. Barnhart said. “Caballo Muerto, which means dead horse, started around 2000 BCE, just as the pre-ceramic cities of Norte Chico were being abandoned.”
One of the most notable features of Caballo Muerto is that its buildings are arranged in a u-shaped complex, which was a trademark of Chavín de Huántar and other sites built in its influence, though Chavín was much further south. Additionally, Caballo Muerto’s largest building features 12 enormous images of the fanged deity on its façade, which also largely came from Chavín.
“It started as just any other early ceramic city, but late in its lifespan it started producing the kind of Chavín-inspired art that we call Cupisnique style.”
In other words, at least some pocket of the Chavín de Huántar culture in southern coastal Peru managed to make its way far to the north during the establishment of the site now known as Caballo Muerto, which was only rediscovered by archaeologists in 1972. There, thousands of years ago, they at least helped build the site, if not having constructed it themselves, bringing the spiders and fanged deity with them. They eventually settled into making beautiful Cupisnique pottery, but—it seems—not before creating an enormous mural to a spider god that wouldn’t be found until the 21st century CE.
This elaborate reconstruction of human history is just one of the joys of archaeology and history.