Monday, June 17, 2019

The Magnificent Pyramid Complex at Túcume – Part I

Completely unknown to most tourists and even historians, an obscure patch of plainlands between the Andes and the Pacific in northern Peru contains an array of structures of varying sizes, including simple buildings, cemeteries, and residential areas contrasted with monumental architectural structures, including 26 enormous adobe truncated pyramids that were constructed in stages throughout the centuries.
    This construction of colossal dimensions, was growing over hundreds of years, from before  the Lambayeque period, incorporating the development of the area. Throughout generations and new rulers, Huaca Larga was growing in height, length and width, filling old rooms thus forming new platforms on which new rooms, corridors or ramps were built.
    The area also includes the best expressions of mural art in the entire Lambayeque region as well as one of the largest and most important groupings of ancient pyramids in the world. During the three periods of occupation, the site constituted the center of political power in the region, one of the richest in the north coast of Peru due to the extension of agricultural productive areas and the security of water.
The Lambayeque District surrounds the Chiclayo region and includes the city of Chiclayo and Túcume in northern coastal Peru
Referred to as the Túcume Pyramids, or just Túcume, the site has an astonishing 250 pyramids within three separate cities, including an array of structure of varying sizes, which arose successively over a period of several centuries. At one time occupied by the Inca, and before that, the Chimú, and before that the Lambayeque, also known as the Sican (Sicán), the actual city of Túcume, with its 26 enormous adobe truncated pyramids, the complex dates back over several other cultures to the Moche and before into BC times.
    With 26 total structures, two of which pyramids containing two of the richest unlooted tombs ever excavated in the Western Hemisphere, Túcume is a vast site occupying 550 acres over ten square miles. It is surrounded by fertile agricultural land thanks to the Taymi canal, considered the most important ancient irrigation work on the north coast of Peru, which was constructed around the same time as the pyramids.
    This irrigation system serviced the Mochica at Cerro Luya and passed through what are today the districts of Pátapo, Picsi and Mesones Muro in the Lambayeque region, suppying the sectors of Ferreñafe, Mochumi, Túcume, and Mórrope.
    The most prominent structures that have been uncovered at this time are the pyramids of Huaca Larga and Huaca One, along with the U-shaped “Temple of the Sacred Stone.” Many of the structures have been altered from their original form by later civilizations in order to suit their needs or styles. For example, all alterations from the Chimú period are painted in red, white, and black and several contain religious murals. This decorative style is consistent with other important Chimú sites such as Chan Chan near modern-day Trujillo, 152 miles away.
    Túcume went largely unstudied until the famous ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl took an interest in the site starting in 1988. He and his team unearthed many important artifacts from tombs and other areas within the pyramids. They were the first group to truly appreciate the importance of the site by thoroughly analyzing their findings and attempting to reconstruct the history of how the site was used by its inhabitants.
One of the enormous pyramids at Túcume

The site of Túcume has always possessed a special sacred importance to the people of the area, a reverence which has been passed down to the present day by local shamans. This was shown by Thor Heyerdahl’s team when they demonstrated the continual usage of the site, implying that ascendant cultures recognized the holiness of sacred places built by previous cultures and continued to maintain the same respect. Like many cultures in the vicinity of the Andes, the cultures which inhabited Túcume believed that each mountain peak was inhabited by a special spirit protecting the local people. Since pyramids were considered to be replicas of mountains, they were thought to possess this same power. The shamans, or curanderos, of the Lambayeque Valley still invoke this power during ceremonies, and the grounds of Túcume inspire awe among the local people–many of whom are afraid to enter the site at night.
Cerro La Raya, or Hill LaRaya, also known locally as Cerro Purgatorio (Purgatory Hill)

The local name for Túcume is Purgatorio, which is the Spanish word for Purgatory. How the site got this name is somewhat hazy, but local legend tells of Spanish colonists lighting massive fires to terrorize the local population, claiming that Túcume was the gate to Purgatory. Other stories recall Catholic priests who flung indigenous people from the cliff of Cerro Purgatorio (also known as Cerra La Raya) as punishment for not accepting Christianity.
    This hill is of central religious importance, and it was likely the inspiration for the whole site. There is evidence of ritual fires taking place at the top of the pyramids so there is speculation that the Spanish conflated this local practice with their own beliefs about the cleansing fires of Purgatory, giving the site its common name.
These once solid and straight vertical mud-bricks have deteriorated over time due to weather, especially torrential downpours

Due to the fragility of the mud-brick construction material, the site is particularly vulnerable to aggressive weather patterns and has eroded over the centuries from exposure to the elements and natural disasters. Heavy rains and strong winds have contributed to the deterioration of the site, reducing building volume and damaging painted murals. Protection and maintenance of Túcume are crucial to preserving the legacy of the Lambayeque culture, as well as the other previous inhabitants of the site.
    Nestled in a forest of old carob trees and a tropical climate along the lower part of the valley of La Leche, the Túcume pyramid Huaca Larga is the largest structure in the region, measuring 2,297-feet in length, 886-feet in width, and 98-feet in height, making it the longest mud-brick structure in the world. These truncated pyramids were finely decorated, with murals that represented their deity and images of the sea, illustrating the fine craftsmanship of the time. They were also excellent engineers, building canals to bring water to this arid area from distant water sources. In addition, the pyramids were arranged in the same way as the surrounding mountains, and have a footpath up the hill to a lookout with expansive views over the landscape, locally called the Valley of the Pyramids.
    These enormous truncated structures were residential palaces that inhabited an aristocratic elite that was dedicated mainly to agriculture, converting the La Leche valley into the largest hydraulic complex on the coast. One is known as Pampa Grande and was built about the same time as the pyramid of Pampa Grande, known as Huaca Fortaleza, which reaches 165-feet high, and measuring 656-feet in width. Though much of the structure remains intact, visually, it is not all that impressive. The next complex was that of Batan Grande, which had 34 pyramids, including the Huaca de Oro (Pyramid of Gold), in front of which a series of royal tombs were located. The pyramids are now badly eroded, due to El Niño rains in 1982 and 1998. But the biggest destruction to the site was man-made when the pyramid was burnt and the town abandoned, to be succeeded by Túcume.
The area of the Lambayeque Region stretching from Chiclayo on the coast inland and northeast to include Túcume, Cerro Luya and Pampa Grande

Túcume lies on the southern margin of the valley and is surrounded by fertile agricultural land, thanks to the Taymi canal, which brings water northwards from the Chancay River. The construction of the 27-mile long canal coincided with the settlement of Túcume, the Huaca Larga, Huaca One and the U-shaped “Temple of the Sacred Stone.”
(See the next post, “The Magnificent Pyramid Complex at Túcume – Part II,” regarding the pyramic complex or series of 26 close-packed pyramids in the Lambayeque region, all dating to before the Moche)


  1. It continues to confuse me that ancient people -- all around the world-- who had a much harder time providing for themselves than we do today nonetheless would put enormous work into building giant pyramids. Why don't we feel any need to put our energy into building giant pyramids today?

  2. I think a lot of that had to do with tomb traditions. We just cremate or put people in the ground, where a lot of ancient cultures put their honored dead in buildings, like pyramids. Just like cemeteries expand over time, I imagine tombs like the ones in this article, did too, until tradition changed.

    Most of the structures left as ruins are not the day-to-day type of buildings, except agricultural terraces and canals. Most ruins are only the more "important" structures built to last (temples, palaces, tombs, etc.) Or defensive strongholds (fortresses and walls). In most cases, we don't get to see the homes and shops and such, because they were perishable and not built with a monumental purpose.