Long before the bright lights of Lima robbed the stars of their splendor above the central Peruvian coast, the Milky Way dazzled with such blazing brilliance that the region’s pre-Hispanic inhabitants built their cosmology around it. Such was their devotion to the sparkling arch known in Quechua as "Mayu" (meaning "river of stars") that these ancient cultures constructed enormous temples in perfect alignment with it, and new research is beginning to reveal the incredible precision with which these astronomical designs were calculated.
In a new study, researchers have analyzed the orientation of ceremonial features at a site called El Paraiso, which is thought to have been constructed between 2400 and 1440 BCE. Predating the rise of the Incan Empire by around 3,000 years, the ancient site appears to have been erected in perfect alignment with a number of important annual celestial events, including the winter and summer solstices.
Previous work at El Paraiso has revealed that the two arms of the main temple are set at an angle of 34 degrees, thus lining up exactly with the northeastern extreme of the Milky Way just after sunset on the solstice. In their new study, the authors identify the existence of two giant structures – one in the shape of a condor and the other resembling a “monster” – that both match this alignment.
According to the researchers, these findings uphold existing assumptions about a pre-Columbian Andean cosmology centered around “dark cloud constellations”. These are animal shapes that ancient people perceived in the dark spaces within the Milky Way, and which were thought to represent supernatural deities.
In addition to these two large animal effigies, the study authors also identified nine small platform mounds surrounding the central temple. When a line is drawn through each of these mounds from the center of the site, it becomes clear that the majority are aligned with either the sunrise or sunset on either the June or December solstice.
The rest appear to have been placed so as to line up with the major lunar standstills, which represent the southernmost point at which the moon rises in its monthly cycle. Overall, the researchers found 13 separate alignments at El Paraiso that fell within one degree of one of these celestial events. A 14th alignment was also identified with an accuracy of 1.5 degrees.
Based on the number and precision of these astronomical alignments, the authors insist that “chance can be ruled out as an explanation.” Instead, they “propose a cosmology in the Late Preceramic of solar and lunar alignments and the linkage of supernatural animals to dark cloud constellations and astronomical orientations.”
“The precision of alignments means that the building of these mounds must have been directed by astronomer priests,” they conclude.
The study is published in the journal Latin American Antiquity.