A ruin in the Peruvian desert left experts rather puzzled for decades. But it wasn't until some unsuspecting researchers uncovered the truth, that they realized the true genius of a forgotten ancient civilization hidden in plain sight.
A Peruvian Mystery
From ancient Mayan ruins in Tulum to Machu Picchu, Latin America is home to some of the most jaw-dropping relics of history. But perhaps none were as shrouded in mystery as the Chankillo complex in Peru.
This Peruvian ruin was built approximately 2,300 years ago and features a complex system of stone pillars, which have stood the test of time. People were aware of the structure as early as the 19th century, but it would take hundreds of more years before a modern scientist truly understood its purpose.
"It Seems Extroadinary"
The longer the mystery persisted, the more intrigue the site garnered. And once the research community truly understood the purpose of Chankillo, they couldn't believe they hadn't seen it all along. As University of Leicester professor, Clive Ruggles, explained to BBC in 2007, hindsight was clearly 20/20.
"It seems extraordinary that nobody really recognized [the towers] for what they were for so long," he explained in the interview. "I was gobsmacked when I saw them for the first time." And he wasn't the only one. With or without the explanation, Chankillo was quite the sight.
The mysterious ruin is located in central Peru, close to the Pacific coast in a valley known as Casma. Despite its proximity to the water, the Chankillo and its surrounding land is nothing but desert, which makes the complex stand out even more against the sandy surroundings.
Overall, the whole ruin spans across a whopping 1.5 square miles of desert, which is the equivalent of over 720 standard American football fields! But perhaps what stands out the most from the structure is the 13 towers perched on the hilly ridge - but why were they there?
The towers in question, all 13 of them were seemingly strategically built on one of the many hills that were found in the Casma Valley. They were all constructed in a uniform rectangular fashion, however, thousands of years had taken their toll on the structures.
Because of that, some towers stood at six feet in height whereas others were towering at 20 feet. But despite the wear and tear, the structures were in remarkable condition considering their age. However, few could deny the intrigue surrounding their unique placement.
The Tower's Peak
Upon a closer glance, it is clear that the structures ran north to south along the peak of the desert hill. And what's even more, they had a uniform gap between each of the 13 towers. From a distance, it created quite a striking effect. Little did researchers know that hidden between design was a clue.
The teeth-like towers atop the long hill remained a mystery for hundreds of years. But the true purpose of Chankillo would soon come to the forefront and would teach us more than we ever could have imagined about an ancient civilization's ingenious past.
Stairway to Heaven
But what's more, the towers had a unique feature only visible upon close glance or access. Each structure had two distinct sets of stairs carefully carved into its sides. And while the top of the tower provided a world-class view of the surrounding valley, that was not their purpose.
But if they weren't for an ideal lookout point, why were the staircases built into the 13 towers? It would experts years upon years to discover the true meaning behind Chankillo and its unique ancient ruins. And the journey to understanding wouldn't be an easy one.
As previously outlined, the ancient Peruvian ruin had been on researchers' radars as far back as the 19th century. However, the initial theories surrounding Chankillo and its importance in history weren't close to the truth. There were many hypotheses that would later be debunked.
One of the more prevalent ideas about the structure was that it had been used for ceremonial customs like battles or duels. And there was even historical evidence that contributed to the theory. Overall, it looked like a promising explanation of Chankillo's past.
For starters, the Chankillo site included three buildings, which were additionally encompassed by towering walls that reached up to 20 feet in height. The multiple rings of defense pointed researchers to believe that part of the ruin was perhaps a fortress.
However, beyond the hypothesis, not much was known. Archeologists weren't certain as to the exact battles which could have taken place at the site, nor their frequency. But the theory persisted because of the sturdy ringed walls in addition to something else...
The battle fortress theory given to Chankillo made sense upon the examination of small pieces of evidence put together - almost like a puzzle. From the sturdy stone walls to the inner buildings, the idea made sense to the archeologists researching the site.
Plus, the 13 towers could have been used to spot possible intruders far before they even had the chance to reach the "fortresses" walls. All in all, the theory was the best explanation to researchers could think of at the time, especially considering the violent period in which Chankillo was built.
The era in which Chankillo was constructed, roughly 400 B.C., is commonly known amongst historians and archeologists alike as the Early Horizon era. And the desert structure wasn't the only building from this time. Researchers had found many fortresses from the era.
At first, researchers hoped that the other battle fortifications would help support the running theory about Chankillo, but upon further examination, it wasn't the case. There was something about this ancient ruin that didn't quite make sense, especially in contrast to the other forts.
Possible Design Flaws
While the towering structures that lined the Casma Valley hill could have provided an excellent look-out point to spot potential attackers, it also puzzled researchers and weakened their fortress theory greatly. There was something about their configuration that didn't make sense.
The 13 towers, in addition to the other triple-walled structure simply didn't seem designed with security in mind. They had plenty of passage routes that allowed people to move in and out freely. And that's not exactly what one looks for in a fortress...
In fact, the curved walls on the ringed structure had a handful of easily accessible passageways. The outer wall had five, the middle wall had four, and the inner one had three! With a total of 12 gaps in the wall, it hardly made for a secure structure.
In contrast to other fortresses which dated back to the Early Horizon period of history, Chankillo just couldn't match in terms of security and design. Despite the sturdy walls, the multiple gaps compromised the overall integrity of the supposed fortress!
A Different Explanation
Other fortress ruins from the Early Horizon period proved to archeologists that people back then knew how to build a secure fortress. And so, if Chankillo displayed fundamental flaws as a fortress or secure structure, then maybe it wasn't a fortress at all.
This new perspective completely shifted the minds of the researchers studying the Peruvian ruin. And so they got to work on a new and improved theory. And it actually came about from appreciating how intact the structures were, considering their astounding age.
According to pre-existing findings on the structure, their well-kept nature hadn't caught the attention of any of the researchers. That is, until the early 2000s of course. Once the idea of a fortress was finally let go, it opened archeologists up to a whole new perspective.
It was 2001 when someone finally gave Chankillo a look with fresh eyes and delve deeper into some previously neglected aspects of the structure. This new researcher couldn't help but wonder if there was any meaning to the 13 towers' pristine condition.
With so much mystery surrounding Chankillo and its historical background, researchers relied heavily on surrounding ruins in the region to inform their theories. It was what had helped them rule out the fortress theory, and what helped develop a new idea.
With the care and upkeep dedicated to the ancient structure, researchers started to point towards other ruins that had been used by cults or spiritual groups. Could Chankillo have been used for such rituals? Possibly, but no one knew what these ancient communities had worshiped exactly...
Over a decade passed, and much of Chankillo's mystery remained. And part of that had to do with how little the academic community knew about the people that occupied the region during the Early Horizon era. Researchers found themselves more and more confused.
In 2013, Brian Cox, a physics professor trekked down to the Casma Valley to film a segment for BBC's Wonders of the Universe. It was there that he confessed that masterminds behind Chankilloa belong to "a civilization we know almost nothing about." It was a bold confession that explained why the structure had remained a mystery.
Searching for Clues
Professor Cox's BBC segment vocalized the true reality of Chankillo and its history - both of the structure and the people that built it. "The details of this culture and all traces of its language are lost," he explained in the Wonders of the Universe episode.
Left with little to no background information on the community from 2,300 years ago, Professor Cox, along with the rest of the researchers, were stumped for decades. However, as mysterious and the buildings were, they offered the most in terms of clues.
"Its walls were once brilliant white and covered with painted figures," the Wonders of the Universe host shared with the show's audience. Professor Cox stressed how amazing this discovery was, considering how faded the walls had become over thousands upon thousands of seasonal changes and sun exposure.
"All but the smallest fragments of decorations are gone," Professor Cox explained of the once colorful walls. And while just slivers of what once was remained, it proved to be a vital clue in unlocking the perplexing mystery of Chankillo. It wouldn't be easy, but eventually, researchers would understand.
"If you stand in the right place, you can still experience the true purpose of Chankillo," Professor Cox explained. But of course, the Wonders of the Universe host could proudly share the true story of Chankillo because the mystery was finally solved.
By the episodes airing in 2013, the great wonder surrounding the Peruvian ruin had finally been answered. But it wasn't Professor Cox who uncovered the mystery, rather two different academics who solved the century-long puzzle that once was Chankillo.
The Unlikely Discovery
The game-changing findings were published by two experts by the names of Dr. Ivan Ghezzi and Professor Ruggles. Their report was immortalized in Science an academic journal in the year 2007. But their path to the truth was nothing close to straightforward.
In fact, Dr. Ghezzi wasn't even particularly interested in Chankillo when it first caught his attention. As a Yale Ph.D. student studying anthropology, he stumbled upon the Peruvian site whilst collecting information on ancient fortresses. He couldn't help but notice Chankillo's peculiarities.
Dr. Ghezzi's Idea
His background on fortresses made him the perfect expert to debunk the widely accepted idea that Chankillo was once a secure battlefront. He first started researching the site in 2001, where he became enamored in the 13 towers that stood with no clear explanation.
From there, Chankillo continued to capture the complete attention of the passionate Yale student. And his time in Peru wasn't certainly worth nothing - it ended up solving one of the greatest mysteries of Latin America. So, determined to understand the truth, he got to work.
Like any diligent academic student, Dr. Ghezzi perused the pre-existing findings on Chankillo to help inform his own outlook. And that's where he found the first clue that pointed him in the right direction to solving the mystery of the ancient ruin.
"Since the 19th century there was speculation that the 13-tower array could solar or lunar demarcation - but no one followed up on it," Dr. Ghezzi shared with Yale News in 2007. "So we said, 'Let's study it while we are here!'" he recalled of his field days in Peru.
Compared to the years upon years of mystery surrounding Chankillo's true historical purpose, Dr. Ghezzi uncovered the truth in what felt like the blink of an eye. "In the first hours of measurements, we realized the nature and importance of the towers," he told The New York Times.
Despite the whirlwind rapidity of the academic findings, sharing the secrets of Chankillo with the rest of the world wouldn't be so easy. Dr. Ghezzi uncovered the truth in 2007, but it would take another six years before his groundbreaking paper would be published.
But confident in his findings, Dr. Ghezzi waited patiently to share the news with the world. And the truth lay within those gaps in the curved walls that helped debunk the fortress hypothesis. Those breaks in the walls were roughly 750 feet from the hilltop towers in distance.
Upon mapping out the positions of the towers in relation to the curved structure pictured above, it all became crystal clear for Dr. Ghezzi and his team. The gaps in the walls were viewing points of the utmost importance. How could so many researchers have missed it?
Perfectly Placed Towers
Dr. Ghezzi broke his findings down to illuminate the genius tool the ancient civilization crafted all those years ago. The 13 structures that stood atop the hill were strategically built to match where the sunrise and sunset would appear throughout the year.
It was a fact that simply could not be ignored. And it solidified the overlooked theory that Dr. Ghezzi had uncovered upon starting his work at Chankillo. The truth was clear: this structure was used to identify the sun's position between the four seasons.
The Tool in Action
But how did one read this ancient tool from the Early Horizon period? Well, it was quite simple. From the viewing point of the 13 towers' west side, all it takes is a quick observation of where the sun rises in relation to the perfectly spaced structures.
For members of the ancient civilization, it was a daily tool to help them keep track of the sun's movements throughout the year. All it took was someone to watch the sunrise in accordance with the towers: and voilà, they were able to situate themselves on any given day.
It Served the Whole Community
Thinking back to a time with no modern clocks or calendars, this tool was state-of-the-art for this ancient civilization. And for 400 B.C., it's even more impressive to imagine a community coming together to create such an interactive device. But how did they mark the seasons?
Well, when it came to the summer months, the sun would pop up along the towers at the uttermost right side, marking the summer solstice, also known as the longest day of the year. And what about the winter months? It worked similarly, just with a little twist.
From Summer to Winter
If the sun rising of the righthand tower signaled the arrival of summer, then the sunrise over the leftmost tower meant? Winter! And this time of the year didn't just come with a change of weather, it also marked the arrival of the winter solstice for the ancient community.
And that meant shorter days and earlier sunsets. For a community that survived on hunting and agriculture, this awareness of the seasons' passing was simply irreplaceable. They had, in their own way, made a calendar. And this was no ordinary accomplishment by any means.
First of Its Kind
Not only was the ingenious behind Chankillo enough of a reason to celebrate, but this Peruvian ruin was also a game-changer for another important reason. It was the oldest solar observatory ever documented across the entire globe. And to think, this was once believed to be a poorly designed fortress!
For Dr. Ghezzi, this new and profound understanding of the ancient calendar meant heaps for the field of anthropology and archeology in the region. "Archaeological research in Peru is constantly pushing back the origins of civilizations in the Americas," he shared with Yale News.
Unlocking the Past
To put it into context, Dr. Ghezzi further explained the genius of Chankillo by comparing it to other ancient ruins. The Peruvian site was close to 2,000 years older than any observatory found in Europe and over half a century more senior to comparable ruins built by the Mayans.
All in all, the mystery of the unique ruins in the Casma Valley took researchers on a path of enlightenment. Not only did they uncover the truth surrounding Chankillo, but they unlocked a little piece from an ancient civilization that we know very little about!