How Ancient Peruvians Partied on Eclipse Day

By Mark Barna | July 11, 2017 11:51 am
A total solar eclipse over Australia in 2012. (Credit:

A total solar eclipse over Australia in 2012. (Credit: NASA)

Solar-eclipse fever is about to heat up as millions of Americans celebrate the astronomical spectacle happening Aug. 21. Businesses and universities along its shadowy bandwidth from Lincoln Beach, Ore., to Charleston, S.C., are organizing days-long events.

There will be festivals with live music, art displays and camping. A special event in Illinois features a performance by hard-rock legend Ozzy Osborne. Many more are organizing eclipse parties in their backyards. But this isn’t the first time in human history – and prehistory – that humans have gone bonkers for a moment of darkness on an otherwise sunny day.

Anthropologist Robert Benfer has coauthored a paper published online in June in Antiquities suggesting that Peruvian people of the 16th century held solar-eclipse celebrations, as well.

The Yungas viewed total solar eclipses as good omens, so you can imagine the partying that went on when daytime skies went dark four times over a period of 22 years. To put this in perspective, the binomial probability of four total solar eclipses occurring even within 110 years over a spot on Earth is .0003 (or .03 percent), the authors say in the paper.

Anthropologist Robert Benfer observes El Volcán in Nepeña Valley in coastal Peru, where he and his team found evidence of solar-eclipse celebrations. (Courtesy of Robert Benfer)

Anthropologist Robert Benfer observes El Volcán in Nepeña Valley in coastal Peru, where he and his team found evidence of solar-eclipse celebrations. (Courtesy: Robert Benfer)

As often happens, Benfer, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, was looking for something else when his path to discovery began. A few years ago, he was in Nepeña Valley in coastal Peru looking for animal-shaped effigy mounds when he happened upon a 50-foot-tall mound dug out at the center. The mound, first discovered in the 1960s, looks like an inactive volcano, hence the name El Volcán. Peruvian people built it between 2,900 and 2,200 years ago.

Years later, Benfer and his team returned to excavate a portion of the mound’s artificial crater and discovered a stairwell leading to an area with a mud-plaster floor and a fireplace made of adobe bricks at the center. The room was constructed in the 16th century by the Yungas. Radio carbon dating placed the hearth’s last burn between 1492 and 1602.

Benfer had a hunch that the room was somehow connected to astronomical events. He used a software program called Starry Night to rewind the sky to how it looked to the Yungas at the time. He discovered that total solar eclipses happened above Peru in 1521, 1538, 1539 and 1543, which aligned with the hearth’s radio carbon dating. He confirmed those dates by checking astronomical records.

The Yungas were agricultural people who probably tracked the stars to know when to plant and harvest, and they made offerings to gods atop mounds to ensure a good crop. Given this, it is not much of a leap to surmise that a total solar eclipse – especially four in a comparative blink of time – would have left a profound impression on them.

“It is likely that astronomer priests organized the responses, likely a festival for solar eclipses,” says Benfer.

Americans are entering their own period of total-solar-eclipse overload. The last one happened 38 years ago in 1979. But this summer’s alignment begins a 35-year period of five total solar eclipses visible from somewhere in the Lower 48 (2017, 2024, 2044, 2045 and 2052).

These days, we know the science behind solar eclipses, and most of us don’t see them as omens, even when occurring within a short window of time.

But we still like an excuse to party. Let the festivities begin.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    We have identified the One True Church’s One True Location as assuredly as God’s Own Finger scratched Belshazzar’s wall. It’s a movable feast.

  • Robin Edgar

    “He discovered that total solar eclipses happened above Peru in 1521,
    1538, 1539 and 1543, which aligned with the hearth’s radio carbon
    dating. He confirmed those dates by checking astronomical records.”

    The 1521 solar eclipse in Peru was actually an annular eclipse which took place on September 30th of that year. There was a total solar eclipse observable in northern Peru on July 30th of 1524. There was another annular eclipse on January 23rd of 1525. There was a total solar eclipse above northern Chile on December 24th of 1535, which would have been seen as a strong partial eclipse in Peru, soon after the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

    There was less than a year between the 1538 and 1539 total solar eclipses, whose paths of totality overlapped over a very small area of land in northern Peru. The 1538 eclipse took place on April 28th, and the 1539 eclipse took place on April 18th. This rapid succession of two total solar eclipses would no doubt have left an impression on those Peruvians who witnessed them.

    The July 31, 1543, solar eclipse was actually a rare hybrid eclipse whose path of totality was over the Pacific Ocean well off Peru’s west coast. It would have been seen as a strong partial solar eclipse by Peruvians on the land. There were other significant solar eclipses over Peru earlier in the 1500s, including a strong partial solar eclipse on November 1st of 1510, a total solar eclipse over northern Peru on August 30th, 1513, and an annular eclipse over southern Peru on February 24 1514.

    More research should be done regarding how this unusual series of strong solar eclipses influenced Peruvian beliefs in the 16th century.

  • StanChaz

    So many assumptions, in so little time!
    It reminds me, once again, that we should not worship the words and works of all scientists with an totally accepting and uncritical eye.
    In olden days we worshiped myth, magic and religion, and sometimes we still do. Let’s not approach science in that way.
    Without seeming to equate them all – they should all be viewed by fallible observers, as being created by fallible observers, for fallible observers …with their lofty edifices all resting on all too fallible, changing and often hidden assumptions.
    Like the rhythm method, the scientific method is obviously useful in some ways –while on other occasions birthing technological monsters. But like the rhythm method, sometimes it simply does not work.
    For sometimes what we proclaim as scientific progress is simply a grudging admission of prior mistakes, with the hope that we’re not substituting new mistakes and myths for old ones.

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