Thousands of years before the Inca ruled the nation now called Peru, a strange and unique civilization dominated the region. It was called Chavin, and its story is one of the most bizarre in history. Unlike the other civilizations of the Americas, Chavin's status as a regional superpower wasn't based on its military muscle. Instead, the rulers of Chavin exercised a cult-like control over their subjects with the aid of hallucinogenic plants. Josh Bernstein ventures deep into the miles of tunnels beneath the ruins of Chavin de Huantar, comes face to face with some of the most fearsome animals of the Peruvian Amazon, and investigates a real temple of doom. As he tries to understand this mysterious culture, he takes part in one of the ancient rituals still practiced by the country's powerful shaman-priests.
"I've searched for The Ark of the Covenant, quested after The Holy Grail, so how could I not look for the Temple of Doom...? But in this case, it looks like I may have found it--at least, ONE real Temple of Doom. And the journey takes place in Peru."
The Tello Obelisk: "Named after the grandfather of Peruvian archaeology, Julio C. Tello, the Tello Obelisk is one of those things which you look at and just wonder what the heck it means. At least, that's what I'm thinking. It's obvious that this giant piece of stone was NOT easy to carve--it's granite, which is very hard to chisel. So whatever message it contains, it's certainly important. But the cryptic message of the carvings is a bit hard to decipher. In fact, according to Guillermo, no one has broken its code. Yet. Perhaps my journey will shed light on its meaning, on its strange animals and plants... To learn more, I must go to the source of its inspiration, the Amazon."
Back to the Jungle: "Ah, the Amazon. I've spent over 2 months here in the past two years and it's starting to grow on me. :) Richard Fowler is my guide and he says he's got a world of wonder to travel through, beginning with a trip to the garden of some local jungle residents."
The Bora: "Just a few feet from the river, the Bora have created life from the jungle's flora and fauna. The people are friendly, the women are topless, and all seems to be going well. They're open to my visit and my questions about their gardens and their rituals. (We actually spend quite a bit of time with them, talking and exchanging ideas long into the night, but due to time constraints, only some of it has made it into the show.)"
The 9-foot Cayman: "Richard is in some ways an American Crocodile Hunter—unafraid to jump into a murky pond full of hungry, unpredictable reptiles. We know that a 9-foot goliath of fang and tail is in this very small pond, yet it doesn't seem to phase him at all. Me, I'm happy to cheer from the sides, thank you very much. I'll rappel into Volcanoes and crawl through tight tombs, no problem, but I'm not volunteering to be croc bait. More power to ya, Richard."
"Despite 40 or so minutes of earnest searching, the closest Richard gets to the huge cayman is a quick wrestle with its tail (which, take my word for it, was huge). So he opts for a smaller creature to make the introduction. Despite its small size (it's actually kinda cute), this 2-foot cayman is all teeth and muscle, and not to be underestimated. It could very easily chew off my fingers if I'm not careful. Nice to meet you."
Snakes, Very Dangerous. You Go First: "From the cayman, Richard runs off to introduce me to the next sacred power animal--the Anaconda. (If you're wondering where one goes to get an Anaconda, that's just one of the things that makes Richard a unique and interesting man--he just finds stuff)."
"The Anaconda is an iconic creature which appears in many cultures of the Amazon--it's even made its way into our culture through rap pop songs and disappointing Hollywood movies. But those thoughts quickly disappear the second I have 40 pounds of slithering muscle draped over me. Now, I'm not afraid of snakes. Never have been. But this thing is HUGE! And the strength in its muscles is instantly obvious to me, as its body constricts and crawls its way around my legs, neck and shoulders. But it's the pointy head and beady eyes that have my full attention. This thing, apparently can bite."
"Within minutes, it's quite obvious that the snake is feeling some discomfort, too, but in a different way. While Richard and I talk, it happily unloads several pints of warm, frothy snake urine down my leg and onto my left foot. SO glad I'm wearing open sandals today. Thank you VERY much. :-)"
"Snake urine aside, it's a joy to be this close to the animals of the Amazon, but from here, my journey must go up--way up to the mountains of Chavin de Huantar."
Chavin: "Chavin sits at just over 12,000 feet above sea level and my lungs are used to the oxygen-rich air of the jungle. So while I'm (gasp) happy to hike the site (gasp), it's going to take me a few days to acclimatize. My thanks to Stanford Archaeologists John & Rosa Rick and their students for opening their site to me and assisting my quest. John is recovering from recent knee surgery while I'm here, so Rosa is my tour guide."
Mucus, anyone?: "Imagine you want to depict a god, carve a deity in rock. Would you depict it with mucus running out of its nose? I wouldn't think so. So I'm immediately intrigued by this very conscious effort to capture an unusual image or event."
The Labyrinth of Chavin: "Dark. Dark, winding and narrow are my first impressions of this space. And the small holes created as light shafts seem shockingly small and far away from where I'm walking.... Without a flashlight, I'd be mostly feeling my way around. Why didn't they have candles or torches down here? Seems odd."
"And then, there's El Lanzon."
El Lanzon: "It's rare that a major icon of religion and archaeology is still in the place where it once was worshipped. But sure enough, here in this tiny, tight chamber deep underground, this gigantic lance-shaped carving of stone still rules its terrain. The first thing that I notice is the smile--it's wicked looking. Not evil, per se, just maniacal, in a witch-doctor-gonna-curse-you kind of way. When I was a kid, I remember going to the Tiki Tiki room at Disney World, and this thing has that same kind of feel to it, only darker. I'm told that the artwork of Chavin was a major inspiration to Picasso. With eyes and lips in strange places, and an unusual sense of perspective, it's easy to see how. But more importantly, I feel it's important to respect the power and historical importance of El Lanzon and head back to the surface."
San Pedro, anyone?: "Moving to Trujillo for a better understanding of shamans and modern healing, I'm excited to meet Julia Calderon. Julia comes from a long line of very powerful shamans. She's one of the best at what she does, so it's with an open and slightly anxious mind that I sit in her yard and watch my first San Pedro ceremony take place. Thankfully, I'm in good hands--anthropologist Doug Sharon is one of the few white men on the planet with a lifetime of experiences exploring altered states. Gotta love that Berkeley crowd."
"And then, the glass is handed to me. I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting to join in the ceremony. I thought I'd just watch as a spectator. But Doug seems to think it's safe enough. And Julia IS one of the best. So, with some trepidation, I drink it. If you're curious, San Pedro tastes like earthy dirt tea. Earthy dirt tea with little chunks of pulp (yum). But it's not bad, considering."
"The effects of the San Pedro are best left to another time and place. (Some mysteries must remain.)"
Caral & Las Aldas: "Julio C. Tello thought the birthplace of Andean civilization was in the Amazon. Now, people suspect the coast, where ample fish (i.e. protein) would have supported a growth in population, culture, and complexity. Cities could be built here, and they were. Caral and Las Aldas have yet to be fully explored, a fact I find tremendously exciting for archaeology. And perhaps, with time and luck, more of the iconography of the Obelisk will reveal itself, too. But, for now, it appears that there really was a period of time when cultures ruled through ritual, when the center of government wasn't a palace or pyramid, but a real life Temple of Doom."