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The alignment of the rising sun on the winter solstice with the Saywas in the Atacama desert, Chile.

Sun and Earth Aligned: Ancient Andean Calendar is Illuminated on the Atacama Desert

On the winter solstice of 2017 a dedicated historian at Chile’s Pre-Columbian Art Museum in Santiago, Dr. Cecilia Sanhueza, was following a hunch in the Atacama Desert, Chile. She observed “a row of three cairns… and two square piles of stones, each about 1.2 meters (four feet) high” to see how they coordinated with the rising sun on the winter solstice. Her discovery that night is being heralded as big news, according to an article in The Economist.

Massive Incan Mapping

Andean cultures defined their territories and recorded astronomical cycles with long-distance alignments which were measured out between the highest sacred mountains, lakes and lagoons. In the ancient Andean Quechua language, localized alignments between cairns of stones were known as a  saywas - which translates loosely to “marker”.

Sergio Martin (ALMA), Juan Cortés (ALMA), Ximena Cruz (San Pedro de Atacama Community), José Berenguer (Museo Precolombino’s curator) y Cecilia Sanhueza (Historian, Leader of the project) analizing and geo tagging a Saywa in Camar. Credit: R. Bennett – ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).(CC BY 4.0)

Sergio Martin (ALMA), Juan Cortés (ALMA), Ximena Cruz (San Pedro de Atacama Community), José Berenguer (Museo Precolombino’s curator) y Cecilia Sanhueza (Historian, Leader of the project) analizing and geo tagging a Saywa in Camar. Credit: R. Bennett – ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).( CC BY 4.0 )

Dr. Sanhueza suspected that an alignment of stone cairns were “more than mundane mile markers” after she calculated that one of the alignments “intersected diagonally with an ancient path, part of a road network built five centuries ago by the Incas.” She told reporters that it was “an extremely moving experience” when she realized that on the winter solstice “the sun rose directly behind the closest columns, appearing to rest briefly atop them.”

At the winter and summer solstices, around the 21st December and June, the sun appears to "stand still” in the sky for three days. It was after Dr. Sanhueza witnessed the winter solstice sun rising behind the pillars on this date that she knew the alignments "prefigured the sun’s appearance” and therefore had “astronomical functions.”

The alignment of the rising sun on the winter solstice with the Saywas in the Atacama desert, Chile. Source: A. Silber, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).(CC BY 4.0)

The alignment of the rising sun on the winter solstice with the Saywas in the Atacama desert, Chile. Source: A. Silber, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).( CC BY 4.0 )

Incan Monumental Ceque Lines

The Inca civilization of ancient Peru created 41 long-distance alignments called ceque lines which were oriented to significant solar, lunar and celestial occurrences. They were defined by Dr. Zuidema in 1981 as a  “device for integrating astronomy, cosmology, and sociopolitical structure” (1981c: 169). These 41 lines were perceived as being imbued with sacred creation energy and emanated from the Qorikancha (Coricancha) Temple of the Sun religious complex in Cuzco. They were studded onto the landscape with 328 sacred shrines, temples and cairns of stones called wak’as or huacas.

Calendar Comparisons

Considering the enormity and complexity of installing and maintaining an empire wide system of 41 alignments, it might be said Dr. Sanhueza went a little too far when she claimed her discovery was “A southern-hemisphere Stonehenge.” Stonehenge is a complex lunisolar chronometer lending itself to predictive calculations of the cycles of the sun and the moon, where the Chilean ‘Solar X’ alignment tracks the suns annual cycle. As such, there is a vast difference in the underlying cosmological and astronomical principals.

Supporting the validity of her observation, cosmological observations were also put forward, for example “The pillars are a visible link to Inti, the sun god, who was thought to “sit” on  saywas at solstices.” In the hills surrounding the Inca’s capital city of Cuzco, an arrangement of massive pillars also mark the winter and summer solstice sunrises and sets. The sun god Inti was worshiped most intensely at the winter solstice and still today, every June 24 (the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere), Cuzco celebrates the Inca Festival of the Sun - Inti Raymi.

Dr. Sanhueza formed her initial theories after studying 16th-century Quechua-Spanish dictionaries and the illustrated writings of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a Quechua nobleman who translated a 17th-century treatise on colonial Peru. To avoid the almost insurmountable task of manually measuring each of the alignments, Dr Sanhueza approached Doctors of astronomy Sergio Martín and Juan Cortés at the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, an astronomical observatory located around 150km (90 miles) from the  saywas, alignments. The astronomers ran computer simulations which supported her thesis, in that some of the rows of cairns were proven to be aligned to sunrises on key dates in the ancient calendar.

Juan Cortés and Sergio Martin, ALMA astronomers working on the field to determine the alignment of the saywas with the Sun and with different constellations. Image: R. Bennett – ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Juan Cortés and Sergio Martin, ALMA astronomers working on the field to determine the alignment of the saywas with the Sun and with different constellations. Image: R. Bennett – ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Dr. Sanhueza and her colleagues then “spent days and nights battling altitude sickness and the cold” studying the surrounding environment searching for “additional clues to the purpose of the  saywas.” To gain a richer understanding of the cultural significance of the pathways, indigenous Atacameña archaeologist, Jimena Cruz, interviewed retired llama herders learning that “one of  saywas was aligned to the sun rise on August 1st,” the sacred day of Pachamama the ancient earth goddess.

On the field on August 1st 2017 the archaeologists watched “the rising sun aligning with the pillars” and knew their suspicions were valid. Concluding as to the original purpose of the solar monuments the archaeologists said,

“Their arrangement was a way of sacralizing the political presence of the Inca” the largest pre-Hispanic civilization who ruled in modern day northern and central Chile between 1470 and 1530.”

Andean Energy Flow

To understand the depth of her discovery we must consider that ancient Andean reality was very different from western cosmology. The Andean universal outlook is called Cosmovision, a paradigm in which all forms are perceived as pulsing with male and female energies which were believed to have flowed along the landscape alignments.

Further detailing the importance of alignments in ancient Andean culture Dr. Oscar Miro Quesada who wrote ' Inca Spirit Pathways'  described the Inca’s alignments as  “a shamanic landscape straight line which is the superimposition of inner space on to the outer landscape ” and according to author R. T. Zuidema they were part of  "a great system devised to organize Inca society and religion, as well as give order to astronomy and the calendar".

Speaking of their discovery the investigators hope they have “encouraged more collaboration between archaeologists, astronomers and locals, and remind the rest of the country that it has a rich indigenous heritage.” And Dr. Sanhueza thinks there are more alignments to studied which inspired Dr. Cruz to recruit local volunteers to help with the preservation of the  saywas.

Top image: The alignment of the rising sun on the winter solstice with the Saywas in the Atacama desert, Chile. Source: A. Silber, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).( CC BY 4.0 )

By Ashley Cowie

References

Zuidema, R.T. (1981). "Archaeoastronomy in Mesoamerica and Peru". Latin American Research Review. 16 (3): 167–170.

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