Huge Wari Empire Temple from 800 AD Unearthed in the Highlands of Peru
While digging at a site called Pakaytambo in the southern Peru highlands, anthropologists and archaeologists from the University of Illinois—Chicago (UIC) unearthed an ancient Wari ritual complex that was approximately 1,200 years old. The vast complex would have been a major site for ritual worship during the period when the Wari people were building and maintaining Peru’s last great pre-Incan empire, which reigned in the Andean region from 600 to 1,000 AD.
In an article just published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, study leader David Reid, a postdoctoral anthropology student at UIC, referred to his team’s discovery as “the first conclusive evidence of an intrusive Wari imperial presence in the Majes-Chuquibamba region of Arequipa, Peru.”
Extensive Wari Temple and Ritual Complex Revealed
The main temple building was constructed in a ‘D’ shape, as was the custom in Wari society. It was built on top of a huge monumental stone platform, surrounded by multiple supplementary structures that would have served as homes or headquarters for religious and political authorities from the Wari Empire. Plazas and courtyards large enough to hold hundreds of people filled the spaces between the various structures, making it clear this complex was used for public celebrations.
“D-shaped temples represent the most ubiquitous form of civic-ceremonial architecture related to Wari religious institutions and imperial ideology,” Reid wrote in his Journal of Anthropological Archaeology paper. “Thus, Pakaytambo provides invaluable insights into the production of state authority through public ritual and performance in regions beyond a state heartland.”
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Drone photograph of the temple complex and monumental platform. (Reid, D/Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
The Pakaytambo site was initially identified through the examination of satellite imagery and drone photography, which were used to create a 3D recreation of the buried complex. Subsequent excavations helped fill in the details about the specific characteristics of the sprawling temple community.
The temple complex was installed at approximately 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) above sea level. It was placed at a strategic location near a busy pre-Inca road, at a key connecting point where people were frequently moving back and forth between highland and coastal areas, all of which would have been controlled by the burgeoning Wari Empire by 800 AD.
Radiocarbon dating of organic residues found in the temple’s living areas showed the temple had been constructed around the end of the eighth century, or right at the point when the Wari Empire was most powerful. It was apparently abandoned at the end of the 10th century, and the whole area of the complex was buried in ash following a volcanic eruption in 1600.
How the Wari Ruled their Vast Territory
The Wari impact on Andean society and culture in the first millennium AD was extensive, and transformative.
“During the Andean Middle Horizon (AD 600–1000), the highland Wari emerged as an expansive power that formed the largest pre-Inca imperial project in the Andes,” Reid explained. “Although territorially discontinuous, the introduction of Wari state institutions to disparate regions of Peru knit together far-flung and diverse social groups.”
The Wari controlled the lands of their empire through the expansion of trade in many instances. However, in the first millennium AD, shared spiritual beliefs were an especially potent binding force.
“One of the most effective ways of bringing people into the empire was through shared beliefs and religious practices,” Reid said in a UIC press release about his team’s study. “Open plaza spaces associated with the temple complex at Pakaytambo would have allowed local communities to participate in ritual gatherings organized by the Wari.”
As was the Wari custom, local people would have been recruited as laborers on the temple construction project, which is estimated to have begun sometime after 770 AD. In return for their cooperation local villages would have been given greater autonomy and permission to manage most of their own affairs. The Wari Empire would have then protected the villages from outside invaders, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the Empire’s political center and its periphery.
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A Wari warrior bearing a spear and shield, found at Pikillaqta Archaeological Park, near Cusco. (DDC Cusco)
The Wari Empire: Its Birth, Death and Legacy
The Wari Empire began to emerge as a cohesive and expansion-minded entity around the year 600. From their capital city of Huari in the southern Peruvian highlands, Wari forces were deployed in all directions, as Wari leaders sought to aggressively increase the size of their fledgling kingdom.
Between 600 and 800, the Wari conquered the surrounding Andes region and most of Peru’s western Pacific coast. But their approach to land acquisition was relatively benign and seldom involved widespread destruction. And after taking control, they preferred a nonviolent approach to maintaining their hegemony.
The Wari were bordered to the south by another powerful empire, that was formed by the Tiwanaku culture. The latter empire ruled a vast territory covering what is now western Bolivia, northern Chile and extreme southern Peru. While they maintained an uneasy truce with the Wari Empire, their presence essentially contained the Wari and prevented them from expanding continuously to the south.
To preserve their political authority, the Wari frequently built irrigation canals in drier regions, as a way to increase agricultural productivity (which the canals often did, substantially). They also constructed religious buildings and trading posts along their ever-expanding network of roads.
“When we consider how empires expand we often immediately think of direct force and militaristic expansion,” Reid told a reporter from the Art Newspaper.
“At the temple center Pakaytambo, and other Wari ritual complexes recently identified in Peru, we also have growing evidence that the Wari incorporated people into the empire through shared religious beliefs and large-scale ceremonial events hosted by Wari elites.”
Despite the powerful position they reached at the height of their prosperity, the downfall of the Wari Empire was swift and catastrophic. Historians believe the empire collapsed from the combined impacts of severe drought, famine and civil war, all of which destroyed much of what the Wari had built by the beginning of the 11th century.
Nevertheless, for a time the Wari Empire achieved true greatness, which was reflected in their monumental building projects. Research at one of the most impressive of these, the newly discovered Pakaytambo temple complex, will continue for quite some time, as the experts seek to learn more about how it helped the Wari maintain their control over a critical region that bridged the gap between the coast and the highlands.
“The temple itself has only been partially excavated,” Reid said. “So future investigations are necessary to fully understand what specific rituals and offerings may have occurred at Pakaytambo.”
Top image:Excavation of d-shaped Wari temple at Pakaytambo, near Arequipa, Peru. Top insert:Pplastered interior wall. Bottom insert: Abandonment feature on structure floor. Source: Reid, D. / Journal of Anthropological Archaeology
By Nathan Falde