Pyramid of Mystery

Professor Emeritus Bob Benfer

Bob Benfer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at MU, says El Volcan is the most mysterious archaeological site he has investigated.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

In the 1960s, archaeologists discovered in a valley near coastal Peru an artificial mound or pyramid with a crater in the top. At the time, the researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts dismissed the find as a huge mound with a looters’ pit in the middle. Bob Benfer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at MU, still isn’t sure what the structure is, but he’s certain it’s more than just a vandalized pile of rubble.

“I’ve never seen anything like this and I have surveyed many coastal valleys in Peru. I know of no other example in the world,” Benfer says. “The site is called ‘El Volcan,’ and the local people call it ‘Waka.’ Some local people think it’s a natural formation, and others think it was built to collect water, but mostly they don’t know its function. I believe it was a religious center because it can been seen from anywhere on the nearby mountain, which has a series of structures built in prehistoric times, and you would see ceremonies at the pyramid from every structure.”

cinder cone vs el volcan

A View from Above

Benfer stumbled upon the pyramid while looking for animal effigies in Peru. He had located several effigies in the southern half of the central coast, where early monumental architecture is found, and was about to quit looking for them when he reached the Nepeña Valley. He saw a mountain in the middle of the valley and went to the top to get a good view of the valley below. Having studied geology, Benfer saw a pyramid with a resemblance to a cinder cone from an extinct volcano. The site intrigued him, so he mapped it and applied to the Brennan Foundation for money for a small excavation.

Benfer says he and his team only managed to dig down two meters into the cone because the deposits were like concrete due to the infusion of water over time forming caliche. Still, they found adobe bricks surrounding the inner part of the cone, adobe floors and benches, and even a rock hearth, which contained charcoal and a shell. They also found a collapsed stairwell that descends beneath, and therefore predates, the adobe bricks. Benfer says radiocarbon dating suggests the hearth was last used by indigenous people around 1563. Twenty-seven feet of deposits lie unexcavated beneath it.  Ceramics from the site suggest it might have been initially constructed two-thousand years ago.

a partial excavation of El Volcan

An Offering to the Moon

Through his research, Benfer also discovered there had been a cluster of solar eclipses that he thinks might be linked to religious ceremonies at the site. He says a total eclipse in any single location occurs by chance once every 360 years, but his planetary simulation program found eclipses in AD 1521, 1538, 1539, and 1543.  Benfer says the inhabitants of the area would have had no previous experience with such a cluster, and their appearances within such a short period of time would have required celebration. He says the Yungas, peoples of the coast, unlike the later Incas, greeted the solar eclipse with joy instead of fear. Lunar eclipses were more worrisome for the Yungas. Because the radiocarbon date of 1563 falls just after the cluster of eclipses, Benfer believes a closing ceremony (evidence in the hearth) might have been linked to one or more of the eclipses.  

“Possibly the El Volcan hearth was a place celebrating the victory of the moon over the sun,” he says. “It seems to have marked the final use of this unique structure.”

Based on the evidence, Benfer contends the pyramid, roughly 35 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter, was originally and deliberately constructed in the form of a volcano—a cone-shaped pyramid with a central pit. Why it was built and what purpose it served remain a mystery.

“It could mark a burial site for a very important person, since deeply buried tombs are known from this area, but without extensive excavation, it is impossible to know,” Benfer says. “There is no direct astronomical association with this site, so it wasn’t built for astronomy, although the nearby site with similar ceramics on the mountain has platforms oriented to the December solstice sunset. Of all of the archaeological sites I’ve investigated, this one is the most mysterious.”


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