Articles

THE CHANCAY CANOPAS

 

Beginning around AD 1,000 a cultural entity, named Chancay (pronounced CHAN-kigh), came into being in the central coastal and mountainous section of the country now known as Peru.  This is mainly a dry desert region but there are some large and fertile geographical basins that have constantly flowing rivers - especially the Chillon and Chancay valleys.  In these ravines, the Chancay people dug reservoirs and irrigation canals so as to develop their economy which was largely based on agriculture and animal husbandry but also encompassed fishing and the fabrication and trade of pottery and woven fabrics.  To aid in their land and livestock management, these natives began making small ceramic and stone  symbolic religious effigies that are, today, known as the Chancay canopas.

The more ancient Peruvians had already domesticated some of the camelids, of the even-toed ungulate family, that roamed the mountain regions prior to the formation of the Chancay lifestyle.  Prominent among these farm animals were the llamas which, strangely enough, had originated about forty million years ago, in the central part of the country that would come to be known as the United States.  It is believed that these animals migrated to the continent of South America about 3 million years ago and became completely extinct in North America by at least ten thousand years in the past.  Scientific studies have determined that the ancient natives in the Andes Mountains of Peru did tame the llamas along with their cousins, the alpacas, around five to six thousand years ago.  This task was performed so the people would have the animals as a source of meat, of fertilizer, of wool for clothing and as beasts of burden.

The Chancay natives were somewhat different from most of the other cultures in the region at that time.  Apparently they were not ruled by exalted kings and elites but, instead, elected their political leaders by common vote.  Even though, they did build houses and small pyramidal structures by using mud bricks, they did not construct elaborate and ritualistic municipalities with large earthen temple mounds as was usual in many of the other territorial societies.  The Chancay developed urban centers north of the current capital of Lima, but these were most likely for protection from enemies and for the creation of trade goods.  It is believed that they were an economic and religious entity that was confident in their deities to protect them in their farming and trade enterprises - if these gods were properly motivated.  And certainly it is accepted that part of that immortal stimulus would have come about by the use of the canopas.

The Chancay were major producers of woven cloths and ceramic vessels and traded these products throughout the alpine and coastal region in which they lived.  They, most likely, used molds to make many of the pottery items since multitudes have been recovered that are of identical shapes and sizes.  These included large oblong jars and small flattened bottles, stylized human effigies, utilitarian bowls and the votive containers called canopas.  Most of these earthenware vessels were coated with a white to beige colored paint with a rough matt-finish.  Over that, the native ceramists painted, in dark brown or black, a profusion of geometric and zoomorphic shapes.  Some of these images have been deciphered but most are probably religious references that defy modern interpretations and they may never be truly understood. 

Among the ceramic items produced, by the artisans of the Chancay civilization, are the unique animal canopa effigies.  Many, if not most, of these containers are in the basic shapes of the domesticated llamas and alpacas and their wild cousins, the vicuna and guanaco.  The perceived reasons for this are that these camelids were a major part of their economic necessities - as food and weaving wool and as pack animals.   The current belief is that these hollow vessel figurines, each with a hole in its back, were used as repositories of offerings to the Chancay divine beings. The canopas were commonly made of clay and more rarely of stone and were apparently buried in pastures and crop fields so as to guarantee rich harvests of new born animals and crops.  According to the descriptions from the later Inca people, each empty container was filled with cocoa leaves and animal fat or tallow in the belief that the gods would guide the family with good will and magical powers.  And maybe that worked since the Chancay Culture lasted from about AD 1,000 until they were conquered by the Chimu and later the Incas in the middle of the fifteenth century AD.  That was 450 years of cultural existence for these ostensibly peace loving fishermen, farmers and crafts people.  The nation of the United States has not lasted that long.   So if we want to exist for more than four hundred years, like these ancients from Peru, perhaps we should take a message from their lifestyles.  Then we could construct and fill and bury in our yards or gardens some reverent offerings – like the devout gifts called the Chancay canopas.

REFERENCES:

 

Cuff, Yvonne H.                                                      1996

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Hardy, Jorge E.                                                       1964

     PRE-COLUMBIAN CITIES

Kurten, Bjorn & Elaine Anderson                      1980

     PLEISTOCENE MAMMELS OF NORTH AMERICA

Longhena, Maria & Walter Alva                                    1999

     THE INCAS AND OTHER ANCIENT ANDEAN CIVILIZATIONS

Mosley, Michael E.                                                 2001

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Perry, Roger                                                                        1977

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Steward, Julian H.,  Editor                                   1946    

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