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Archaeological complex of Marcahuamachuco

Date of Submission: 05/08/2019
Criteria: (iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture
State, Province or Region:
Province of Sánchez Carrión, Department of La Libertad
Coordinates: S7 47 01.5232 W78 04 48.3382
Ref.: 6409

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The Archaeological complex of Marcahuamachuco is a large archaeological site built out of stone, of approximately 260 hectares. It is located at 3.600 m.a.s.l. on the top of an elongated plateau that visually dominates a large territory of the northern highlands of Peru. It was built between the years of 400 and 1.200 A.D., and it is the most representative site of a regional culture named “Huamachuco”, with an area of approximately 6.800 km2 in the Andes of the current departments of La Libertad and Cajamarca. Investigations carried out between the years 1981 and 1989 revealed that Marcahuamachuco was a vast sanctuary which was attended regularly by different communities of the region to honour their dead and to worship their tutelary deities. The architecture of the sanctuary integrates to the landscape and expresses a territorial planning that was preceded by the design and implementation of drainage and soil conditioning systems. Its buildings made of stones are astonishing for its great size, fine architectural finishes, unique patterns and monumentality, and above all because they contrast sharply with the scarce visibility of the architecture that is characteristic of the communities from which the devotees came.

In the four main sectors Marcahuamachuco (“Cerro del Castillo”, “Cerro de las monjas”, “Cerro Viejo” and “Cerro de los Corrales”), two of them are the most representative buildings: the “salones con nichos” and the “galerías”.

The “salones con nichos” (rooms with niches) are worship environments that are composed of big rectangular buildings with dimensions that reached 60 x 10 m and with walls up to 4 m of height. The most intricate examples had two or three levels, and in the inner side of the second level’s walls big niches were scattered. A particular feature was the burying of humans placed inside the thick walls of these structures, evidences that express the function of “space for the worship of ancestors” performed by these buildings. There are at least 20 rooms with niches in Marcahuamachuco and exist slight differences in its architectural design that suggest the participation of different communities in its construction.

The galleries are distributed between the rooms with niches, and they are habitable buildings conceived to accommodate those who made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary during their stay there. Three types of galleries can be differentiated: straight, circular and curvilinear, from which, the first two were built around an interior four-cornered and circular courtyard, respectively. The maximum width of the galleries did not exceed the 3 meters, and also exhibit a high grade of monumentality, because they could have three internal levels and walls that went up to 5 m of height. During the time passing, the galleries fulfilled different functions (walls, residences and warehouses).

Besides these recurrent buildings, Marcahuamachuco has unique spaces that testify its magnificence. The “plaza principal” (Main Square), with a rectangular space of 3.600 m2 fully coated with flagstones, is found near to the middle side of the plateau. Under the square there are series of drainage pipes, which is evidence of the planning that preceded the sanctuary’s construction. Near the square several rooms with niches are grouped and, specially, the great structure called “El Castillo” (The Castle), which is a building of irregular curved floor with walls up to 11 meters of height. This is interpreted as a major temple and, at the time of its construction (centuries 8th to 9th A.D.), it was the greatest work built by men in the northern highlands of Peru.

Lastly, great part of the Marcahuamachuco plateau’s edges is surrounded by a high wall, composed of a curvilinear gallery with 2 levels, which is up to 9.5 km continuous of length, and has two big entrances at northeast and southeast.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The archaeological site of Marcahuamachuco is an outstanding monument of the complexity of the cults developed by the “Huamachuco” society in the context of ancient American cultures, and of the social influence and mobilizing power that these cults exerted within the territory ruled by this society (approximately 6.800 km2 in the Andes of the current department of La Libertad and Cajamarca) and its surrounding frame; being this the reason why the Marcahuamachuco sanctuary – the main site of the “Huamachuco” cult- reached remarkable proportions, and is currently the largest archaeological site in the northern highlands of Peru. Likewise, this sanctuary hosts the highest concentration of pre-Hispanic monumental architecture of this region, as a result of a technology that represents the greatest. stage of a prolonged historical process, along with a creative solution to water supply during the occupation of the site.

The sacred space where the Huamachuco men’s work is located, stands out for the convenient choice of a plateau’s top where a territorial planning was planned and reflected that hierarchized the design and scales of the buildings, environments and open areas in response to the ceremonial function, for which the members of the ancient Huamachuco society came up with a series of unique and particular architectural forms to express their beliefs and fulfill their material and spiritual needs. The uniqueness of the design, location and monumentality of these buildings aroused feelings of astonishment and admiration not only amongst the local devotees, but also amongst members of other cultural traditions having an impact on a vast Andean territory. For instance, the design of the rooms with niches was eventually copied by representatives of the powerful Huari Empire (700 – 1.000 A.D.), who adapted and executed it in different provincial administrative sites of their own culture, such as Pikillacta (Cuzco) and Viracochapampa (La Libertad).

Criterion (iii): Marcahuamachuco is the most representative site of an ancient cultural tradition that was developed in the wild and uneven territory of the northern Peruvian Andes. The site is also the maximum expression of religiosity of this culture, because it hosts the best examples of its religious architecture and all the complementary buildings that made possible the realization of great ceremonies that contributed to an extraordinary administrative and political management of the territory of influence. All these buildings exhibit large dimensions, which are very unusual amongst sites of similar function, especially those located in the highest parts of the Andes Mountains. Both the architectural design and the spatial relationships that these buildings display are unique amongst all American cultures, and provide a valuable testimony to the diversity of cults and cultural manifestations expressed by the continent's ancient civilizations.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


Marcahuamachuco preserves intact most of the attributes that sustain its Outstanding Universal Value. Thanks to its isolated location at the top of a plateau surrounded by cliffs, the site has never been affected by large development projects or modern extractive activities.

Given the height of the walls of the buildings, the fragility of their mortar and the centuries that have passed since their construction, part of the structures have collapsed; however, in many other cases they remain surprisingly untouched. Both these and the most damaged ones preserve elements that allow us to infer, with a high degree of precision, the original characteristics of the buildings that would have been disturbed by the passage of time. These characteristics include, for instance, the original height of the walls, the presence of ornamental complements, the traditional materials of the Andes and the constructive technology in primeval stone, the knowledge of which is being strengthened with the help of scientific information accumulated to date.

Finally, some examples of the monumental litho sculpture that once decorated the facades of the most representative buildings are preserved; these evidences are mostly out of context. However, thanks to the research and conservation projects of archaeological structures, developed by the Ministry of Culture since 2012, new examples of these exquisite lithic carvings are being recovered, and new interventions and projects are expected to significantly expand the repertoire and knowledge of this type of lithic sculptures that once embellished the site.

At all times, the site's conservation interventions have respected the recommendations made in the old structure conservation charters produced by ICOMOS, such as The Venice Charter (1964), The Burra Charter (1999) and The Zimbabwe Charter (2003). No intervention, for example, has resulted in the partial or complete restoration of any structure.


The altitude and degree of isolation of the archaeological site of Marcahuamachuco, has contributed to the low incidence of human intervention after its abandonment, ensuring the preservation of all components of the site that justify its Exceptional Universal Value. The spatial relationships that originally held these structures are easily readable, and their original form and design has been revealed from specialized studies.

Archaeological research is progressively enriching the knowledge of the morphology, extension and nature of the diverse constitutive elements of the site, in the sectors that have been intervened by the Ministry of Culture since December 2009; that is to say, the permanent presence of the Peruvian government guarantees the precaution of its integrity.

It should be noted that the Peruvian government ensures the protection of the property since it is part of the National Cultural Heritage declared as Monumental Archaeological Zones of Marcahuamachuco and Wiracochapampa by means of National Directorial Resolution No. 1236 dated 16 October 2000 and its delimitation, which covers an area of 2´599,723.23 m² (259.9723 ha).

Comparison with other similar properties

There are two American pre-Hispanic sites inscribed on the World Heritage List that can draw the closest similarities with the Marcahuamachuco Archaeological Complex: the Sacred City of Caral-Supe (Peru) and the Chaco Canyon (USA). Although located in different environments (a desert alluvial terrace and the arid canyon bottom), both sites denote an unusual concentration of monumental architecture, which was built by dispersed populations living in quite simple conditions. In both sites, religious motivations were the main engine that summoned and moved masses of people to erect buildings of dimensions never seen before in their respective regions. However, the final result of this communal effort is different from the room with niches (large buildings with two to three levels) of Marcahuamachuco. In Caral-Supe were erected stepped pyramids and in the Chaco Canyon "Great houses" and large kivas. However, this contrast is important because it illustrates the diversity of human experience, reflected in how the same motivation can find expression in such different architectural products.

It is also interesting to observe how other sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, which are located in height positions within the Andean Mountains, such as Chavín de Huántar (Peru, 3.177 m.a.s.l.) and Tiwanaku (Bolivia, 3.850 m.a.s.l.), and which also performed prominently religious functions, show a high development in the production of stone carvings. The style and themes represented in these carvings are contrasting, and the same happens with those of Marcahuamachuco; all of which also illustrates the diversity of human experience.

In terms of the conception of human work integrated into the territory, although a site inscribed on the World Heritage List such as Machu Picchu is an example of stone architecture integrated into the natural forms of hillside and high jungle landscape, as well as the masterful management of building materials and techniques and an efficient planning of the built space, Marcahuamachuco is distinguished by being part of a more arid territory and by its location in a high and relatively flat territory free of mountains, which led to a creative incorporation of architecture into this different landscape. And, although Marcahuamachuco did not reach the degree of transformation of the stone achieved by the Incas, with less elaborated elements the builders of the Huamachuco society shaped formal designs different from those of Machu Picchu although no less important, in a stage prior to the Inca conquest. Furthermore, Marcahuamachuco originated a local technological tradition that influenced other smaller sites located in its area of influence (Cerro Amaru, Cerro Sazón, Cerro Miraflores, Viracochapampa, as well as Cerro Huachac and Cerro Mamorco).

Likewise, although the architecture of the archaeological site of Gran Pajatén -inside the Abiseo River National Park, a mixed site inscribed on the World Heritage List- has in common with Marcahuamachuco the use of stone in the construction of circular buildings that make up important architectural complexes in a forest environment; these do not reach the dimension, characteristics and complexity of Marcahuamachuco's buildings. The buildings of the Gran Pajatén are the response of their creators to the challenge and climatic conditions of the Amazon forest, which is significantly different from the wild territory in which Marcahuamachuco is located, where the society that originated it boosted the experience accumulated over time to achieve a particular and unique architectural planning in its sanctuary.

Finally, in northern Peru there is no sanctuary like Marcahuamachuco that stands out for its extension, monumentality and high altitude spatial planning, from which a vast territory is dominated that corresponds to part of its immediate area of influence and there is a connection with significant landmarks of the sacred landscape (mountains and a snow-capped peak).