The thirteen towers of Chankilla, Peru: ancient astronomical observation in the Americas

The thirteen towers of Chankillo, Peru: ancient astronomical observation in the Americas

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Located in the Peruvian coastal desert at the Casma-Sechin Oasis, stands the incredible monumental complex of Chankillo, also known as Chanquillo, which extends across four square kilometers. The ancient archaeological site consists of a fort located on hilltop and thirteen solar observatory towers, as well as residential and gathering areas. It was occupied for a relatively short period of time – between the mid-fourth century BC and the early first century AD.

Located between two observation platforms, the thirteen astronomical towers span the entire annual rising and setting arcs of the sun, which shift north and south along the horizon gradually over the course of a year. What makes Chankillo so important is the fact that, according to archaeologists, Chankillo may be the earliest known astronomical observatory in the Americas, built some 2,300 years ago. The Incas, also well known astronomers, observed the sun and the stars, but they did so many centuries later.

Remains of Chankillo Fortaleza. Archaeological site near Casma, Ancash in Peru

Remains of Chankillo Fortaleza. Archaeological site near Casma, Ancash in Peru ( Wikipedia)

Research has shown that the astronomical alignments seen at Chankillo were, and still are, incredibly precise. The towers have been known about for a long time but their astronomical value had not been widely realized until Ivan Ghezzi and Clive Ruggles undertook detailed research at the site in 2007. Archaeologists suggest that the inhabitants of Chankillo would have been able to determine the date with an accuracy of +/- two to three days by observing the sunrise/sunset from the correct observational platform. On the winter solstice, the sun would rise behind the further tower on the left and then over time, would rise behind each of the towers until it reached the furthest tower on the right some six months later on the summer solstice, marking the passage of time. Other ancient sites known for astronomical observatories contain only one point of astronomical alignment which does not provide enough information for an accurate measurement of time over one year.

One of the towers at Chankillo, Peru

One of the towers at Chankillo, Peru. Credit: yonel campos gamonal / flickr

The towers at Chankillo, which are spaced at intervals between 4.7 and 5.1 meters, vary in shape and size, ranging from 70 to 130 meters in width and up to 6 meters in height.  According to archaeologists, at the time the towers were constructed they were completely flat on top. [To view the thirteen towers of Chankillo on Google Maps, select Google Earth’s ‘Fly To’ option and enter latitude: 9 33 40.27 S and longitude: 78 13 38.53 W.]

The walls of this ancient site were once shiny white, with paintings and figures decorating the monuments. The structures found at Chankillo were built of shaped stone and mortared walls, a combination that reflects the surroundings of this coastal desert and incredibly beautiful environment in Peru. Apart from observing the Sun, the Chankillo observatory would have aided the builders of Chankillo to know the best time to plant and harvest of crops. 

Chankillo, Peru

Chankillo, Peru. Credit: yonel campos gamonal / flickr

The most puzzling aspect of Chankillo is, who built this incredible complex? Archaeologists no almost nothing about these ancient builders who paid tribute to the sun and stars, constructing the first ever solar observatory in the Americas. 

Like many other ancient cultures that have worshiped the sun and the Sun God, Chankillo wasn't much different, as the towers were probably built, not only as a calendar and observatory, but also as a place with which to celebrate their mystical connection with the sun.  "If you were just measuring seasons, there would be no need to make such great structures," says Ghezzi . "The idea was to transmit a political and ideological message about a ruler's close relationship with the sun." 

Featured image: The "Thirteen Towers" of Chanquillo, Ancash, Peru, taken from the Chanquillo fortress (on the top of a neighbouring hill in the desert). ( Wikimedia)

References:

Chankillo, Peru – UNESCO: Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy. Available from: http://www2.astronomicalheritage.net/index.php/show-entity?identity=51&idsubentity=1

Video credit: Wonders with Brian Cox – Science Channel .

Chankillo – Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueologicas. Available from: http://www.idarq.org/chankillo.htm

Chankillo – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chankillo

Solar Observatory at Chankillo, Peru – by Roger Atwood. Available from: http://archive.archaeology.org/0801/topten/solar_observatory.html

By Ivan Petricevic

Comments

rbflooringinstall's picture

There is no way for anybody to know that those are the earliest astronomical observation towers in the Americas. People were building towers and observing the sun and stars way before 2000 years ago, and I think any group of people in the Americas are no exception. And I garuntee that "Chakilla" is a white man spelling and its supposed to be "Chaquilla".

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

It says the earliest -known- observatory, which is very different.

Ivan Petricevic's picture

Actually it would be Chanquillo, there is no such thing as "Chaquilla" if im correct. And as for the astronomical part, well that is what makes archaeology and history interesting, we are always discovering new things, new places... But until today archaeology has Chankillo as the oldest ancient astronomical observatory in the Americas. 

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