Long before the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1530 and brought with them a written language with which to record history, legends about ancient Peru were passed down through generations by oral “historians” who were trained to flawlessly recount these stories of mythical heroes and villains.
A figure from a mural that was discovered on the interior wall of an open courtyard on the north side of Huaca Chornancap, a truncated pyramid.
Among the most colorful of these stories was the legend of Naymlap, the fearless founder of a centuries-old dynasty that supposedly ruled the Lambayeque Valley in northern Peru.
As the legend goes, Naymlap arrived with a vast fleet of balsa rafts carrying an entourage that included a chief wife and many concubines. He also brought with him an idol made of green stone, and he built a palace where it was installed. In his court were a trumpeter who blew through shells much prized by the Indians; a servant who scattered the dust of pulverized seashells on the ground where Naymlap tread; and servants who tended his every need, from an official bather to the keeper of his feathered shirts.
Throughout Naymlap’s long reign, the tale continued, people enjoyed peace until his death, kept secret by his attendants who — fearing that his followers would find out their venerated leader had succumbed to this human fate — buried him in the same room where he had lived. Saddened by his mysterious disappearance, many of his followers abandoned their homes to find him.
The ancient search for Naymlap was, in one sense, re-launched in modern times by an internationally known UCLA archaeologist who set out in 1980 to determine whether the story could actually have occurred in real life by excavating two adjacent sites in the Lambayeque Valley: Chotuna and Chornancap.
Christopher Donnan’s revelations about the legend and his findings at the two sites are detailed in a new 268-page book that was just published by the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, “Chotuna and Chornancap: Excavating an Ancient Peruvian Legend.”
Archaeologist Christopher Donnan.
“We set out to see if we could test the validity of the legend through archaeological excavation,” explained Donnan, an emeritus anthropology professor who has made major discoveries of tombs and other sites important to an ancient civilization in Peru, the Moche, throughout his 40-plus-year career as an archaeologist. “My hope was that we might be able to suggest that Naymlap was Moche, my main field of interest. “
But after three field seasons at the sites, not one fragment of Moche pottery had been unearthed. Instead, Donnan and his UCLA team of students and fellow archaeologists found a wealth of ceramics, burials, colorful wall murals and other materials in an area that once was the location of domestic dwellings, pyramids, palace complexes, walled enclosures and a room-filled site they dubbed the “Artisans Quadrangle,” a place where metalworking took place.
In other words, the archaeologist said, “What we found was perfectly in keeping with the legend.”
Donnan said that the legend that had so fascinated him for years had been recorded for the first in the written word by Miguel Cabello de Balboa in 1586, a little more than 50 years after the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire and developed colonial Peru.
“It’s a wonderful story,” said Donnan of the legend that ends nine generations later with the fall of Fempellec, the last in the line of Naymlap’s successors. Fempellec apparently tried to move the green idol out of the palace but was intercepted by the devil, who appeared to him in the form of a beautiful seductress. With the consummation of their union, a terrible rain began to fall, flooding the valley for 30 days, followed by a year of famine and sterility. Irate vassals captured Fempellec, tied his feet and hands, and threw him into the Pacific Ocean, bringing to a close the dynasty that Naymlap founded.
Captivated by the legend and tantalized by the possibility that oral traditions have some historic validity, Donnan shared his thoughts during a dinner conversation in 1979 with Bill Lucas, a patron of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History and an amateur archaeologist.
The different shapes of the adobe bricks used to construct the pyramid, Huaca Mayor at Chotuna, indicated to archaeologists that it was built over a period of many centuries.
“He quizzed me at great length about the possibility of testing the validity of the legend through archaeological excavation,” Donnan recalled. “The more we talked, the more intriguing the whole idea became. By the end of the evening, we had hammered out a plan for three field seasons” over three years. Funding from the National Geographic made it a reality.
The idea was not to prove or disprove that Naymlap had once existed, Donnan explained. That wouldn’t be possible. “If you thought you knew where Camelot was, and you organized a three-year excavation of the site, how would you know that King Arthur was real or that he lived there? Even if you found a big, round table, could you then be able to say, ‘This is Camelot’?” Not likely, the archaeologist said.
But in the end, Donnan’s explorations yielded evidence that the legend could have been real and that the sites might have been where Naymlap and his successors were said to have ruled.
Radio carbon measurements set the date of the earliest construction at around 650-700 A.D. Digging down to the lowest layer that showed human habitation, researchers uncovered structures made of adobe mud bricks. Because builders used bricks of three different shapes over time, the shape of the bricks gave archaeologists some idea about the dates of construction. Bricks of a later period also showed signs of erosion caused by a flood of water.
All of this correlated to the periods during which Naymlap and his successors ruled. “It’s an uncanny correlation,” Donnan said. “And nothing was found that indicated the legend doesn’t apply to Chotuna or Chornancap. But, of course, that doesn’t prove that the legend was real.’“
A section of a low-relief frieze found in a corner of a courtyard on the north side of Huaca Gloria, a small mound extensively damaged by erosion and looting, in Chotuna.
While field archaeology cannot confirm or deny the validity of such legends, myths and oral traditions, Donnan said, he has urged his fellow archaeologists not to discount oral traditions and encouraged them to use them in framing their theories. “It can provide important insights that can help in that analysis.”
Today, the excavation at Chotuna and Chornancap is being carried out by Peruvian archaeologists, who have been digging there continuously since 2006. When Donnan goes to visit, they treat him as a folk hero, the first explorer of the sites, and scramble to have their pictures taken with him.
“Some of the young students can’t believe I’m still alive,” he said with a chuckle.
While no one has made any progress on validating the Naymlap legend, a site museum has been erected at Chotuna where visitors can see what’s been found there and learn about the legend of Naymlap.
“It’s wonderful,” Donnan said. “I always hoped that someday other archaeologists would continue the work that we began.”