In 2022, archaeologists from the University of Toronto and the University of Trujillo began the first excavations of Cerro Prieto Espinal, a mountainside fortress-temple and settlement in north coastal Peru. Across the 3km-wide site, the team identified massive concentric walls, ceremonial platforms, habitation terraces, and cemeteries. While originally thought to have been occupied c.AD 450-1470, from the Moche to the Chimú and Inca periods, surface collection has revealed possible examples of much earlier Formative period ceramics, potentially pushing the date of the site back as far as 500-100 BC.
Moche ceramics often feature warriors fighting mass battles on mountainsides, and the archaeological record indicates that, during the collapse of the Moche civilisation, communities retreated into these mountainous areas and began massive projects to fortify their local peaks. Later, according to the Spanish chroniclers Calancha and Balboa, fortified mountainsides in the Jequetepeque Valley were also the key battleground for the conquest of the region by the Chimú empire (see CWA 110), the largest rivals of the Inca, and then later the Incas themselves in their bid to conquer the Andes. However, evidence of the site’s earlier date and the activities taking place here suggest that Cerro Prieto Espinal had a function beyond simply settlement or defence. Andean mountains were often viewed not just as geological features but as wak’as, or the animate ancestors of different communities, and offerings and feasts seem to have been held at these sites. Future investigations will continue to document these and other nearby defended mountainsides.
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Text & image: Christopher Wai and Stefanie Wai, University of Toronto