The Recuay Culture

The Recuay Culture

The most important pre-Hispanic culture of the Department of Ancash, apart from the Chavín culture, was the Recuay culture. It flourished between 100 and 700 A.D. and was widely distributed over most of the modern territory of Ancash, from the Pacific coast to the Marañón River, but especially in the highland regions of the Callejón de Huaylas, the Cordillera Negra to the west, the Conchucos region to the east and Pallasca Province to the north. Though its remains are found in almost all of the 20 provinces of Ancash, there was no central capital and only a few major architectural sites have survived the last 1500 years of reuse and depredation by later cultures.

Why is it so interesting? Archaeologically, the Recuay culture is one of several regional cultures that developed at a time when cultural diversity in Peru was at its peak. It was contemporary with the well-known Moche and Nasca cultures of the north and south coasts, respectively, and interacted at least with the Moche. Recuay is best known for its fine pottery, abundant stone sculpture, large subterranean tombs and massive stone architecture. They led an agro-pastoral way of life, that is, a combination of agriculture – surely potatoes, other tubers, quinoa, maize, squash and many other plants – with animal husbandry of llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs. In fact, it appears that the Recuay achieved a substantial expansion of llama and alpaca herding into the high puna lands of the Cordillera Negra, Cordillera Blanca and the Pampa de Lampas to the south, which provided them with abundant wool, meat, hides, bones and sinew for manufacturing cloth, leather and various tools. The few Recuay textiles that have been preserved are masterfully woven tapestry cloths and belts of special triple cloth, often having bright red ground colors and elaborate mythical designs in yellow ochre, brown, black, pink and white.

Recuay funerary pottery is especially attractive because it is made of white kaolin clay, similar to that used for making Chinese porcelain (indeed, the name of the clay derives from “Kao-ling”, a hill site and clay source in China). This special clay is more difficult to work with than other clays, requiring a much higher temperature to fire or “bake” the ceramics. Designs were first painted on the white clay body using red and orange clay pigments and then the vessels were fired. Following this, an organic solution was applied using a “negative” or resist technique, somewhat like that used for making batik designs on cloth, before the vessel was heated a second time to scorch the organic solution to a carbon black color. The common vessel forms included a hemispherical bowl for eating and drinking, plus dippers and small spoons for serving and eating, and jars and bottles for storing and serving liquids, such as the corn (maize) beer known as chicha. The most elaborate bottles have modeled human and animal figures or represent models of Recuay architecture and have special tubular pouring spouts so that the liquid could be poured out in a narrow stream.

Recuay stone sculpture is very abundant at sites in the Cordillera Negra, the Callejón de Huaylas, Pallasca province and parts of the Conchucos. There are several different forms: statues carved on all sides, tenoned heads with a long “stem” in the back, and vertical, horizontal and square slabs with designs on only one side. While the statues could have been free-standing, the other sculptures had to be set into buildings or walls. In general, the human figures are thought to represent revered ancestors, while the supernatural and animal figures allude to religious beliefs about natural and supernatural forces and the otherworld.

Recuay tombs and buildings were built of stone, the preferred construction material for durable structures. Many tombs were excavated in the ground and lined and roofed with slabs of stone. The largest of these measure four or five meters in width and have room for a dozen or more individual interments. Spectacular buildings measuring more than 30 meters on a side and having walls more than 7 meters tall can be seen at both Pashash and Yayno.

Where can I go to see evidence of the Recuay culture? The five best places in the department of Ancash are: 1) the Museo Arqueológico de Ancash “Augusto Soriano Infante” in Huaraz, 2) the municipal archaeological museum in Cabana (Pallasca Province), 3) the archaeological site of Pashash, just outside the town of Cabana, 4) the large Tomb of Jancu, east of Huaraz, and 5) the spectacular mountain citadel of Yayno near the city of Pomabamba in the Conchucos region, east of the Cordillera Blanca. Major collections of stone sculpture and pottery can be seen in the museums in Huaraz and Cabana. Bus transportation to Cabana can be arranged from the Terminal Terrestre in the city of Chimbote on the Pacific coast of Ancash. Bus transportation to Pomabamba is readily arranged from Huaraz.

By: Steven Wegner.