How Ancient Civilization Measured Time


| LAST UPDATE 04/03/2022

By Stanley Wickens
chankillo complex ancient structure
JANINE COSTA / Contributor via Getty Images

Throughout history, humans have been coming up with creative ways to measure time. Over the centuries, archaeologists have discovered numerous inventions that have been used by civilizations across the world to keep track of the days and weeks. And one of the oldest of these inventions lies in the north-central coast of Peru.

Located in the Casma Valley, this remarkable structure was built by a mysterious ancient civilization that long predated the Incas' rise to power in Peru. The prehistoric site, known as the Chankillo Archaeoastronomical Complex, featured a row of 13 stone towers that together resemble a row of teeth. In addition to this structure, the site also contained a triple-walled hilltop complex, called the Fortified Temple, and two building complexes called the Administrative Center and the Observatory. Although the site has been known to scientists for centuries, it was only at the beginning of the 21st century, during official excavations, that archaeologists realized what the structure really was.

ancient civilization peru time
JANINE COSTA / Contributor via Getty Images
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In the middle of the day, there doesn't seem to be anything special about these stone structures, which span nearly 980 feet long. But at dawn and dusk, we see them in a different light. As the position of the sun changes within the year, it can be seen slowly moving along the ridge of the stone towers in the horizon. Researchers noticed that on the summer solstice, the sun rises to the right of the rightmost stone. On the winter solstice, however, it emerges to the left of the leftmost stone. Thanks to this creative invention, people of the ancient civilization would be able to tell the time of year just by looking at the positions of the rising and setting sun along the toothy horizon.

Little is known about the ancient civilization that designed this solar observatory. However, we're certain that it would have been one of the oldest cultures in America, predating the Incas by over a millennium. And, just like the Incas, it's safe to assume that this culture considered the sun a divine power. Researchers even believe that the stairs leading to each tower suggest the site could have been used for rituals as well. The Chankillo Complex is considered today a "masterpiece of human creative genius." And while the ancient site may not be as old Stonehenge, we've discovered that its uniqueness is undeniable, with features that can't be found anywhere else in the world.

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