January 2017: Skies Over Crestone

Filed under: Skies over Crestone |
Inca rooms and platform oriented to the sun on the summit of Llullaillaco, 22,110 feet.

Inca rooms and platform oriented to the sun on the summit of Llullaillaco, 22,110 feet. photo courtesy of Graham Zimmerman

Summit platform on Llulliallaco.

Summit platform on Llulliallaco. photo courtesy of Graham Zimmerman

Summit  platform showing the orientation of burials. The lower, southern, burial faced December solstice and the upper faced June solstice.

Summit platform showing the orientation of burials. The lower, southern, burial faced December solstice and the upper faced June solstice.
illustration adapted from Reinhard and Ceruti

by Kim Malville

This month the western sky after sunset is going to be dominated by Venus, which reaches its greatest height above the horizon on January 12. Above it you will find dimmer and redder Mars. Jupiter rises around midnight and will be high in the south at dawn.

January 1, 2, and 3. The crescent moon will pass Venus and Mars, appearing below Venus on the first; between Venus and Mars on the second; and above Mars on the third.

January 4: This is a very strange day for us in the northern hemisphere. In spite of fact that we are deep into winter, the earth is closest to the sun on this day, a mere 147,100,998 km away.  Our seasons are produced by the tilt of the earth’s axis, not the variable distance of the earth from the sun.

January 8-9: The gibbous (between half and full) moon moves past Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the Bull.

January 12: Full moon

January 14-15: The moon is close to Regulus, the brightest star of Leo, the Lion.

January 31: The crescent moon, Mars, and Venus form a triangle in the west-southwest soon after sunset. They will set around 9pm.

Winter solstice in the high Andes

Winter solstice has come and gone.  I’d like to share one of the strangest, most spectacular, and perhaps even gruesome winter solstice ceremony I’ve studied.

The Incas are renowned for their marvelous architecture, skillful masonry, complex political organization and for their extensive system of roads. I suggest their most remarkable achievement was the ascent and the building of ceremonial structures on many of their highest peaks, the highest being Llullaillaco with an altitude of 22,110 feet. It is the seventh highest peak of the Americas, containing on its summit the world’s highest archaeological site. It was climbed by the Inca around 1500 and then not again until 1952 when two Chilean climbers, anticipating that their ascent would be the first, were disappointed. The ruins on this peak have been carefully excavated by Johan Reinhard and colleagues.

The most important mountains were the sites of capacocha ceremonies, which involved child sacrifice, boys and girls chosen for their beauty and perfection, who were offered to the sun, Inti, the weather god, Illapa and mountain deities. Offerings on the summits were made after state-supported pilgrimages, which often involved weeks or months of travel and covered distances of 1000 km or more. They included priests, officials, assistants, local inhabitants, the child to be sacrificed, and sometime proud parents. They would travel along established Inca roads, stopping at sacred places along the way to make offerings. When passing through the mountains the pilgrims would keep as silent as possible to avoid angering the mountain gods. These were important imperial events, and when they passed through villages, the residents were not allowed to view them directly and had to prostrate themselves.

Llullliallaco can be climbed only during the southern summer, between November to March. The most likely times for pilgrimage would be days around December solstice, the time of the major Inca celebration of Capac Raymi. The timing of this celebration required incredible planning and precision. Everything on the mountain had to be ready for the participants. Weather would have added additional uncertainty, but since the sun does not move appreciably for a week around solstice, the date of the celebration was flexible.

The route upward contains a number of resting places (dharamsalas in India) for pilgrims, priests, and sacrificial victims. The largest of these way stations is a base station at 17,600 feet, where most of the pilgrims would had stayed. Ascent to the summit by a smaller party, which included the children, would have taken at least three days.   They would have to spend a night on the summit before the sunrise ceremony. The two-room building on the summit may have been used by the priests and victims. Other members of the party must have huddled during the night behind the wind break.

Whether it was in the rooms or behind the windbreak, spending the night at such a high altitude would have been an excruciating test of endurance, as any climber who has bivouacked at height altitudes can attest. Clearly they did not have down sleeping bags or down jackets, but some of the discomfort may have been alleviated by chewing coca leaves. When the first gleam of the sun appeared, its location would have been burned in the memories of those waiting for the dawn. Few sunrises could have been greeted more enthusiastically.

The platform, 33’ long, 20’ wide, contained the bodies of three children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy and girl aged 4-5 years. Because the burials were in undisturbed conditions when excavated by Reinhard, we have evidence of the role of astronomy in this ceremony. The platform has been rotated a little more than 10° away from the natural ridge line (see the illustration), indicating an intention to orient it to December solstice sunrise, very extraordinary considering the difficulties of building stone structures at such an extreme altitude. The young boy was buried parallel to the short side of the platform, facing the rising solstice sun. The 13-year-old girl was facing northeast, in the direction of June solstice sunrise. This is truly extraordinary because the mountain cannot be climbed in June. Clever measurements had to have been made to achieve that June alignment.

There are 15 mountain peaks in the Andes that have evidence of child sacrifices. The scale of these sacrifices was far from as extensive or bloody as those of the Aztecs.  All children had been carefully selected, well fed, and honored for a year before their deaths. Climbing the mountain and spending the night on top must have been terribly frightening. Perhaps sunrise was exciting. Perhaps being in the presence of gods of the sun and mountain was an epiphany for them.  We cannot know.  We do know that these three children on Llulliallaco had been anesthetized by combination of coca leaves and chicha (corn beer) at the time of their entombment.

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