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Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto

Date of Submission: 05/08/2019
Criteria: (iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture
State, Province or Region:
Province of Castilla, Region of Arequipa
Coordinates: S16 13 27.9533 W72 30 07.6864
Ref.: 6408

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The Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is a petroglyph site created by agroalfareras (agricultural-ceramic) societies in which their worldview symbols and daily life scenes were portrayed in thousands of engraved rocks of volcanic origin. It represents a remarkable example of particular tradition of rock art. Throughout a large range of evidences, it is possible to confirm that between 800 - 1500 years A.D. many anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geometric figures and many scenes were engraved, identifying in the stone block panels of the site. They were located at a large desert plain that is in the Majes valley.

In the group of petroglyph localities around the world that hold an ancient and even a significant density of engraved rocks, Toro Muerto has an exceptional place for its cultural attributes and values that are masterfully expressed, and it stands out not only in Peru or in America.

The Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is located in the region of Arequipa, at 163 km from the city of Arequipa and next to the village of La Candelaria. It belongs politically to the Uraca and Aplao districts, province of Castilla. It is located western Andes Mountains, Toro Muerto is located in a wide and desert gorge that joins the Valley of Majes River, whose landscape is distinguished by its dry lateral gorges, fluvial terrace in both shores and river course (Fig. 1). In detail, the petroglyph site is located in the north shore of that valley; moreover, it is delimited to the east and west by high and large cliffs, almost verticals, that are composed by volcanic rocks.

As many other coastal valleys of Peru, the Majes valley is formed as an ‘oasis’ in the desert, which serves as a natural route for Pre-Hispanic communities that moved from the highland to the coast, and vice versa, looking for subsistence products and goods to exchange.

In this area, the Toro Muerto gorge has a large alluvial fan of 11 km of longitude and 5 km maximum wide in its joint with the valley. It has an inclined plan that domains it, whose altitude varies between 1900 meters in its highest point and 400 meters in its lowest point. It has an arid and dry environment; however, it has a spring of underground water that emerges in the southwestern sector of the site, called spring La Aguada. This water source is a relevant element in the local landscape and, above all, a resource of singular importance in the zone since it is the only place of permanent humidity in the plain that allows few vegetation as an oasis. That played a crucial role for the ancient Pre-Hispanic populations that used this space and walked through it.

In that regard, the archaeological complex is inserted in a desert landscape distinguished by more than five thousand blocks of igneous rock of volcanic nature, located on the land belonging to the "Moquegua" formation of the Tertiary Period. (Fig. 2) The origin of these rocks goes back to the geological period known as Pliocene. During this period, it is possible that the violent pyroclastic emanations of the Coropuna and Chachani volcanoes, located in the upper part of the Majes valley has generated blocks of dacite tuff (Bedia 2012, 22; Linares 1974, 141). Subsequently, due to weathering and inclement weather, they fragmented and spread over the sandy surface of the gorge. Large blocks of dacite are particularly concentrated in the upper part of the stream and decrease in quantity and size towards the lower part (Fig. 3).

In addition to the Toro Muerto site, other archaeological sites in the Majes valley confirm the continued human occupation of this region (10000 years), identified from the Lithic Period to the Inca and Colonial periods; which suggests that it was inhabited and traveled for centuries. Evidence of this prolonged use of the territory are the petroglyphs of Watapia, La Culata de Aplao, La Barranca, located upstream, as well as Alto de Pitis and Querullpa, closer to Toro Muerto. Moreover, towns, cemeteries, geoglyph fields, among others, such as Beringa, Casquina, Cosos, Cerro Bilbao, Huancarqui, Cerro del Gentil, Acoy, Quizcay, Huario, Santa Rosa, El Carmen and La Real; correspond to the Early Intermediate Period (100 B.C. - 900 A.D.), Middle Horizon (600 A.D. - 900 A.D.), Late Intermediate Period (1100 - 1430 A.D.) and Inca (1438-1532 A.D.) (López y Maquera 2016, 111).

The antiquity of Toro Muerto has been tentatively raised, based on stylistic comparisons and by association with designs recognized in ceramics and textiles discovered in regional archaeological contexts (Koontz 2018; Van Hoek 2018). Thus, the petroglyphs of this site have been linked with the Period of Regional Development or Early Intermediate Period and, later, with the Wari Empire (Middle Horizon), some 1300 years ago; as the Chuquibamba culture of the Late Intermediate Period, some 800 years ago, continuing until the Inca period, some 500 years ago. This has allowed to maintain preliminarily that the engravings were made between approximately 800 and 1500 A.D., with their maximum stylistic apogee during the Chuquibamba period (900 - 1450 A.D.) (Pozzi Escot 2009; Núñez 1986; Linares 1974). However, it is also suggested that petroglyphs could be even older, i.e., from the Formative Period (2000 B.C. - 200 A.D.) (Van Hoek 2018, 10).  

The Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is distributed over an area of 50 km2; of which 10 km2 have the highest concentration of rocks engraved with various figures that create the great repertoire of rock art of the site (Gonzales 2018, 42). Although to date there are 2584 painted rocks in the site, it is difficult to calculate the exact number of figures engraved in the panels, because many of them are now almost imperceptible, or are covered by sand.

This repertoire of petroglyphs is composed of schematic men with head trophies or beheaded, men with feathered headdresses, men with extraordinarily large hands; men with serpentine figures coming out of their armpits; men with radiant sun-appearing heads; men with radiant headdresses. Also, very schematic human figures with masks or body adornments; men dressed in clothes adorned with wavy lines; human figures with "solar" heads holding camelids; human figures showing the phallus; schematic human figure whose left hand touches a bird (Núñez 1986, 337) (Fig. 4).  

On the other hand, various drummers are represented, and among them, dancing human figures held by their hands, accompanied by quadruped animals with spots on their bodies; human figures with huge fingers on their four limbs; felines with spots on their bodies and without spots, alone or in groups (op. cit.).

Camelids are represented alone or with their shepherds. In this regard, some scenes show a man jumping on a camelid or groups of camelids enclosed in circular farmyards, with or without their shepherd inside. In other scenes, the shepherd has his rope tied to the cattle. Moreover, camelids are shown still or running; nursing their offspring; in long caravans and where the snout of each of them is attached to the tail of the other (Ibidem).

Birds such as eagles, falcons and condors were also represented in flight or stills. Other zoomorphic figures engraved has the shape of lizards, snakes and catfish (Fig. 5).

Greek crosses in different shapes also were engraved, a Greek cross with a square in its center and a central point in that, that was related to other zoomorphic figures; a Greek cross with internal lightning; a cross with blades ending in hooks; concentric Greek crosses. In addition, geometric figures such as a square with a circle inside, a square with a cross inside filled with dots, circles joined by a straight line, solar figures with a central point (Ibidem).

Amongst the engraved figures are dancers with weeping eye masks surrounded by zigzag signs, straight lines and dots that seem to represent extraordinary large number of "musical signs" in this petroglyphic locality (Núñez 1986, 338). Similarly, anthropomorphic figures seem to dance on a stage (Fig. 6).

Indeed, there is a diversity of human figures represented in the site, which have an unmistakable style, since they have faces with a single dot on it, with two eyes or with three long descending lines. In addition, other figures only show a cross with curves on the sides in the face, or between the body and the headdress, two eyes are without further facial representation. In some dancing figures, the face is formed by its external part and, in the center, a circle with a vertical line that sometimes is straight and sometimes curved, while in others, the face is full size.  

For example, the dancers are with moving catfishes or with many quadrupeds, and sometimes together with falcons and felines, also dancing alone, in pairs or in groups of 3 or 4, and so on until forming large groups. In a particular case, there are two dancers in vertical position and next to them, two in horizontal position, and all with a great dance movement (Ibid. 338) (Fig. 7).

Other topic that is distinguished are the zoomorphic figures whose mouth emanate consecutive lines or lines and dots like effluvium. Sometimes an animal’s “effluvium” goes directly to the sex of the animal in front of it. Occasionally, that figures are seen between the dancers and the “musical signs”. In others, the symbol of the “effluvium” emanates from three animals simultaneously, and in general, from quadrupeds and birds (Núñez 1986, 338).

The most part of the Toro Muerto petroglyphs were engraved deeply due to the softness of the dacite rock of vacuolar matrix, with mica and sanidine crystals, and of colors that goes from dark coffee almost black to light sepia and creamy white due to the rusting caused by the rain and weather. They were engraved with axes made of hard sharpening stones and andesites, in shape of wedges and hammers. A large number of juxtaposed figures of different sizes often covered the vertical or slightly oblique rock surfaces. The engraving processes included the striking, blending, scratching, chipping and percussion engraving of these stone materials. The execution of some details of the figures such as hands, eyes and small animals, were made with enough care and figured by fine incisions (Linares 1974, 142). The grooves of the engravings appear in angular form as deep channels; shallow, superficially struck and scratched, thus revealing the different techniques employed (Núñez 1986, 337).

The most remarkable feature of these rock art expressions are the stereotyped elements associated in comparable scenes. The basic motifs present in part or in whole correspond to: vertical or sometimes horizontal bars, zigzag lines and parallel lines, anthropomorphic dancers and small mammals (dogs, felines and/or llamas) (Guffroy 2009, 222).

The frequency of these motifs does not exclude a certain diversity in the other engraved figures, particularly in the lower part of the site, which seems to correspond to an early period of occupation of the site. The anthropomorphic beings engraved in this sector represent individuals playing drums, characters with headdresses and human silhouettes. Signs are scarce in this area, also targeted by stones with a single petroglyph of small size (Op. cit. 223).

The masked dancers’ figures that prevailed in the middle and upper part of the site incredibly demonstrated a revealing ideological evolution, related to the emergence of a true unique symbolic graphic in the Peruvian rock art. The quantity of petroglyphs engraved on a single stone - which can reach 150 figures - and the apparently unfinished state of some panels suggest a progressive process of execution organized according to certain stylistic conventions (Ibid.), which have not yet been fully defined.

The dancing characters have a certain diversity in the position of the legs - straight or folded serpentine- as well as in the appearance of the faces/masks, which can be with one or two eyes and tears figures; with lines or without facial features. Almost all of them have hairs or feather headdresses. The relationships between the rectangular shape of the bodies and their hips to one-side position with the bars and zigzags that surround them are evident, giving the scenes a sensation of great movement (Ibid.).

The animals related to that dance scenes are mostly dogs or small felines, less frequently a profile view of llamas and birds of prey, belonging to the fauna of the region (Linares 1974, 138). Many are in the same scale that men, but sometimes are oversized. There is a large diversity of animal figures inside the panels where the group of bar/zigzag/dancer are absent or peripheral. Felines with spotted or scratched bodies are represented mostly in scenes of confrontation or one running behind other, with a profile view of the head or a frontal view, and sometimes with effluviums (Guffroy 2009, 223).

Many birds’ species are in a profile or frontal view with wings outstretched, usually with a falling tear of one eye. There are great representations of snakes and beings with snake shapes, mostly with one head, as lizard, batrachians and fishes.

The camelid figures with rectangular bodies, alone or in flocks; deer, and other animal species of large size, difficult to recognized are also quite numerous.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is a remarkable example of a petroglyph site created by agroalfareras (agricultural-ceramic) societies in which their worldview symbols and daily life scenes were portrayed in thousands of engraved rocks of volcanic origin in America. Its location is a large desert plain of Tertiary Period; as 2584 engraved rocks that were identified so far in an area of 5078 hectares. That make the site an extraordinary petroglyph locality in the world, and above all, in the American continent.

Toro Muerto is an outstanding expression of a rock art tradition in the Andean region and in America. It is possible to find evidence that show the artistic mastery in the application of many engraving techniques in volcanic rocks, the selection of a large iconographic corpus of a high symbolic importance and the figure and unique scenes composition, that reflect culture heritage and the specialist work on their own time and space. The rock art, as a universal artistic creation, was practiced by ancient human groups and civilizations to express important aspects of their economic and social activities; believes and religious practices. The petroglyphs of the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto have a particular sample of this ancient cultural and artistic testimony.

The site represents a particular example of cultural transformation of natural landscape for the amount of thousands of petroglyphs, small groups of geoglyphs, graveyards, tombs and ancient related roads, all located in a large desert plain of sandy surface, sprinkled with volcanic rocks, that prevail in the valley and has a unique groundwater source. These natural and cultural elements as a whole give the place not only functional but also relevant symbolic connotations. In the Andes, there is a longstanding relationship between man, nature and the cosmos. Both in the Andean world and in other ancient civilizations, the actions of individuals were conditioned and structured from a particular way of seeing and understanding the world. Toro Muerto reveals a lot about the way people perceived, understood reality and expressed themselves, as well as the way they related to these kinds of spaces.

As many other ancient civilizations, people represented their worldview through rock art in the Andean world. The Toro Muerto petroglyphs expressed masterfully a particular tradition characterized by the recurrence of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and basic geometric motifs of symbolic nature. They were organized in figures and scenes that reflected continuation, changes, mutilation and superposition of motifs in time. Therefore, the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition which has disappeared in the “Archaeological Heritage – Rock Art Sites” category (see Comparative Analysis).

Criterion (iii): The ancient Andean societies expressed through rock art their way to see and understand the world and the landscape. The Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto reveals the material expression of a remarkable particular tradition of rock art, expressed in figures and scenes about daily life of high symbolic significance. They were engraved in thousands of volcanic rocks, and social transformation of the natural landscape. Consequently, the Toro Muerto petroglyphs have an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition, which has disappeared. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is interpreted as a space specially chosen by  agroalfareras (agricultural-ceramic) societies to graph symbols and images related to ritual and social practices as “territory of memory” (López 2018); an “open liaison and reception center” (Elmo León com. per., taken from López 2018); a “powerful space for representation and communication of real and symbolic messages inscribed in an area of great social movement” (Tantalean and Pinedo 2009); a “sacred and sacralized place, a passage of forced transit of travelers that went down towards the coast. Before going on to the seashore. (Pozzi-EScot 2009).

Researches made in the site attest the petroglyph authenticity and integrity that reflect exceptional values of Toro Muerto, as well as the conservation measures of the engraved rocks’ preservation that has to be adopted in order to protect and preserve this valuable cultural and artistic testimony.

The authenticity of Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is expressed in present archaeological evidences – 2584 engraved rocks- found well preserved. Moreover, in many figures and scenes graphed in stone panels, in the gorge topography and the rock distribution in a large desert plain in a coastal valley that means the space organization in sectors with defined features that were used for many activities, as rituals. The associated geoglyphs, graves and cemeteries, reflect numerous activities, their purpose and inscription in the local cultural landscape, as well as the repeated use of the site during an important period.

On the other hand, the natural and cultural associations recognizable on the site are expressed in distinctive aspects and elements in the landscape, such as its dominant position on the cultivable valley, a single underground source of fresh water, groups of geoglyphs and graves near the engraved rocks; thus granting to this place, a sacred character that could have preceded its use as a graveyard, to the locality of petroglyphs.

The engraved surfaces composition does not only reflect an artistic mastery in the figures and scenes performance, fact that implies ability in the application of engraving techniques and iconographic corpus knowledge to represent, but also, the predominance of many basic motifs of symbolic nature, identified in the Andean world during centuries, such as snakes, felines and birds. Although these are not exclusive to Toro Muerto, they reveal cultural relationships in a large area of regional interaction. In addition, they have motifs that together with anthropomorphic and geometric designs mentioned above reflect the code creation and stereotyped organization for panels based on their recurrence, that is what makes it particular (Guffory 2011).

Many records and archaeological inventories made from 1951 to 2018, which measure the important number of engraved rocks and comprehensively express their historic, artistic, cultural and social value, confirm the Archaeological Complex integrity. Likewise, it reflects the well preservation of physical attributes needed for transmitting those values.

Despite some mutilation evidences, chisel marks and graffiti in few rocks, this monumental archaeological complex still preserves all the elements (shape, design, materials) that their creators left. In that regard, the physical attributes preservation of the site is ensured because of its own delimitation, confirmed by National Board Resolution of the National Institute of Culture, now Ministry of Culture, as defined based on that previous records. Also, in which all attributes of the Archaeological Complex were included; as natural elements of the surrounding landscape that could have been part of it, whose features primarily remain intact. This resolution declares to the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto as National Cultural Heritage.

Main threats to the physical integrity of the property come from natural factors together with geological rock formation. Anthropogenic hazard factors as non-controlled visits and graffiti represented a threat for the integrity of component parts in the past. However, the Ministry of Culture, the Provincial Municipality and District Councils currently controlled them through basic infrastructure installation for its supervision, research and tourism.

Research continuity results important for updating the graphic and photographic record, and progress in spatial analysis and 3D modeling of the petroglyphs, applying modern precision techniques and instruments. A research line needed is related to characterize the nature of identified occupancy in the complex, establishes its total chronology, as defining the relationship between the engraved rocks, and registered burial structures (Guffroy 2009, 224).

Comparison with other similar properties

Rock art exists in most countries around the world, so it represents a universal creation of man and one of the first expressions of human capacity for the abstraction, overview and idealization. This art reveals not only important aspects of economic and social activities, believes and religious practices, the mythical thought and nature, but also the aesthetic sense, and artistic and cultural creation of ancient societies that produced them. 

In the American continent, especially in Peru, there is an important sample of rock art in its four methods such as pictographs, petroglyphs, geoglyphs and mobiliar art with rock art tradition, that represent around 8000 years of ideological and social evolutions. The most updated national inventory made to date indicates the record of about 900 sites identified in the many regions of the country, which 400 belong to localities of petroglyphs recognized in 22 of their 24 regions. Arequipa is in the top of the list with 88, the biggest amount of this type of sites, then Puno with 75 and Huánuco with 67 (Hostnig 2003, 10, 17).

Toro Muerto is compared to important petroglyph localities in Peru such as Alto de Las Guitarras, Cerro Mulato, Yonan, Huancor y Checta, by superposition signs, iconographic changes, figure mutilations or appearance of many patinas that indicate the possible existence of various performance moments, as a reflect of certain ideological evolutions. Moreover, it is compared to Palamenco and Samanga because they are located in plains and engraved rocks are distributed in heavy or widespread concentrations. The location in a dominant position over the valley makes it similar to other sites as Checta, Chichictara and Huancor. The appearance of small geoglyphs and tombs related to petroglyphs allows comparing also to Locumba, Quilcapampa and Miculla sites. Likewise, the representation of common elements as felines, birds and musicians, with sites as Chichictara and Quilcapampa.

However, it is distinguished from sites mentioned above, and stands out from them because sites with more than 50 engraved rocks in Peru are rare; barely 12 sites exceed this number. In that regard, the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto has a remarkable petroglyphic locality of 2584 engraved rocks inventoried to date, and distributed in an area of 5078 hectares; that show the greater variety of engraving techniques and superior abilities in its production. Likewise, it is also different from that by complexity and peculiarity of scenes represented in a support of particular features. In addition, the landscape, where the appearance of important natural and cultural components as a freshwater spring, geoglyphs, graves and cemeteries stand out. Therefore, it represents the most remarkable exemplar of a large tradition of rock art in Peru and the Andean region.

On the other hand, the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is located in an outdoor plain and in an arid and desert environment, next to a valley, common in the Peruvian coast. In contrast to other petroglyph sites in America, inscribed on the Tentative List of World Heritage such as Las Labradas (Mexico), Itacoatiaras of Ingá River (Brazil) and the Pre-Hispanic rock art of the Dominican Republic.

Thereon, Las Labradas is a group of 600 basalt rocks of volcanic nature, located in the seashore, while Itacoatiaras of Ingá River is a rocky panel of 24 meters long and 3.5 m tall approximately, that are part of a granitic rocky outcrop, located in an area near Ingá River, in a semiarid and wooded environment. Finally, Pre-Hispanic rock art of the Dominican Republic represented in paintings, petroglyphs and low relieves, has been identified in outdoor stations, shelters and caves, scattered in the coastal plains, large valleys and mountains of the country.  

The antiquity of Las Labradas sites (1000 B.C. – 300 A.D.) and Itacoatiaras (10 000 B.C. – 1400 A.D) are earlier than Toro Muerto; however, the human occupancies of the main site of Itacoatiaras of Ingá River present a chronology that is extended until the 14th century A.D., contemporary with the development of the Toro Muerto petroglyphic locality.

There is no doubt that an aspect that makes Toro Muerto different and even makes it stand out above all the mentioned sites, is related to the site extension and engraved rock density found there.  This is a site feature, in contrast to that sites, and it stands out when considering the relative chronology allocated to the site (800 B.C. – 1500 A.D.), about only seven centuries.

Moreover, the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto is compared to the following sites registered in the World Heritage List:

  • Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape (Azerbaijan), represents 40 000 years of history through 6000 engraved rock art that are in an area of 537 hectares, located in a rocky plateau of a semi desert region. The site also has remains of occupied caves, settlement and burials, which reflect an intensive human use during Humid Period that continued until the last Ice Age, from Upper Paleolithic to Middle Age. 
  • Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly (Kazakhstan), produced between 2000 B.C. and 10th century, it has 5000 petroglyphs located in an area of 900 hectares. It has 48 complexes with sites and cemeteries that are testimony of social organization and rituals of pastoral towns.
  • Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai (Mongolia) of 12 000 years. It represents the most comprehensive and well preserved visual record of human prehistory and early history of a region in the intersection between Central Asia and North Asia.
  • Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia (Saudi Arabia) represents almost 10 000 years of human history inside a valley with running water. It has traces that ancestors of current Arabian left of this existence.
  • Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Coa Valley and Siega Verde (Spain and Portugal) of Upper Paleolithic (22 000 B.C. – 10 000 A.D.) with 645 engravings produced in an escarpment. It has a group of the most remarkable Paleolithic art of the Iberian Peninsula. 

In contrast to the mentioned sites, the Archaeological Complex of Toro Muerto express its global importance by the following:

  • The engraved rock density, 2584 petroglyphs registered up to date, located in an area of 5078 hectares.
  • The petroglyph high level preservation, despite the vulnerability of natural and human factors.
  • The cultural and natural landscape which makeup Toro Muerto, does not suffer substantial changes after the petroglyph creation.
  • The site represents an important testimony for the human occupancy process of Peruvian south coast valleys by agroalfareras (agricultural – ceramic) societies between 9th and 16th centuries A.D., and a particular cultural tradition of rock art in America.
  • The site is an under-represented geocultural area in the World Heritage List with rock art sites, as thematic studies of ICOMOS mention.

Therefore, and upon the previous comparative analysis of petroglyph sites, both national and international, Toro Muerto is a site with a group of remarkable cultural attributes and values in the world, that makes it exceptional.