Sayhuite Stone: The mystery of the giant rock containing more than 200 geometric and zoomorphic figures


The Incas of Peru moved southward through South America during the 1460s, systematically conquering groups of original inhabitants and communities of widely differing languages, traditions, and cultures. The Incan Empire was eventually an amalgamation of all these different peoples, and it spread over a vast area of South America, including the countries today known as Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, parts of Argentina and Colombia, and areas of the Amazon basin.

From the time that Pizarro led the Spanish conquistadors into this empire in 1523 and discovered the enormous Incan wealth, particularly their gold, the Incan Empire’s fate was sealed. Nine years later, the Spanish began the business of conquering the Incan people and claiming whatever spoils they could. In spite of their superior weaponry, it was not until 1572 that the Spanish finally managed to overcome the last Incan ruler. During this period, most of the culture of the Incas–their daily life, traditions, and belief systems–was destroyed. So too was their agricultural way of life and much of their architecture. All the gold that had covered the buildings and temples of the Incas was removed and melted down to fill the Spanish coffers.

Sayhuite rock sculpture Author: AgainErick CC BY-SA 3.0

Since there was no written language, knowledge of the Incan traditional way of life has largely been lost. Most of the information we do have regarding their history comes from stories passed down throughout generations of the Chechen people, the descendants of the ancient Inca. Researchers and archaeologists continue to see what they can find.

The Sayhuite archaeological site (overview). Author: AgainErick CC BY-SA 3.0

While many buildings and artifacts dating from the Incan and pre-Incan period have been discovered, possibly one of the most fascinating of the archaeological finds is the huge Sayhuite Stone. This enormous monolith, found on the Concacha hillside, measures approximately seven feet in length and 13 feet wide. It is now located at the Sayhuite Site. John Hemming, the author of Monuments of the Incas, noted that in a Colonial narrative there is a description of a beautifully decorated Sayhuite temple, together with reports as to the fate of Asarpay, one of its priestesses. The existence of this historical commentary has persuaded researchers to accept Sayhuite as being an Incan center for religious worship.

The Sayhuite Stone’s top section is covered in a mass of intricate carvings, many of which are fairly detailed and range from geometric forms to animal figures. Some of the symbols are connected by carvings that depict a water-like flow, and clearly distinguishable are reptiles (iguana), frogs, monkeys, and felines (jaguars and pumas). Archaeologists, having determined that the Sayhuite site was a religious center for the Incan people, believe these carvings depict Incan religious rituals associated with water. It is thought that these people most likely held ceremonies for the worship of water at the site. It is still unclear why this monolith was created but it is a significant find in that it provides archaeologists with further insight into the culture of these past peoples.

Historians have been speculating for years on the function and purpose of the stone and this has presented the archaeologists and researchers with a conundrum, for there are many differing opinions as to the significance of the stone. While accepting that the Sayhuite Stone may well have had religious significance, the consensus is that it may have been used in a most practical way as well.

Sayhuite located in Peru

One theory postulates that the carvings on this stone represent a map depicting the many and varied water systems in use throughout the Incan Empire. This theory is supported by the inclusion of animal carvings, each of which is believed to represent one of the provinces within the Empire. Besides its value as a topographical map, the stone is thought to have also been an experimental model to test whether or not the proposed systems were viable. There are additions which show that the stone has been carved and re-carved a number of times, possibly to correct “flows” of water, and this fact lends credence to this theory.

Another possible use for this unusual monolith is that it was a teaching aid. It is carved with distinctly visible terraces, ponds, and rivers, as well as clearly shown tunnels and irrigation channels. Researcher Arlan Andrews holds the view that the Sayhuite Stone was used as “a model for designing, developing, and testing the viability of the plans for water flow for public water projects.”  But he also feels that it may well have been used for instructing and teaching the engineers and technicians the concepts of water usage. Meanwhile, the Sayhuite monolith, having inspired all of these different theories, has become the most popular attraction on this archaeological site.

The Incans recorded their important information (mostly about trade and taxes) on their quipus, a type of belt hung with strings and knotted in specific positions. Most of these were destroyed by the Spaniards, and the knowledge of how to read them has also been lost. What we know today of the Incan Empire has largely been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, with some information having come from written reports and descriptions by many of the Spanish conquerors.

The periodic archaeological discoveries that have been made are therefore of great importance for the garnering of more information regarding this period of South American history. The Incan sites such as those found in Cusco itself, located along the Sacred Valley at Lake Titicaca, and at the magnificent Machu Picchu, help archaeologists piece together how the Incas lived and worked, what they believed, and what traditions they followed. Understanding the Incan culture helps us to understand past peoples, and archaeologists apply such knowledge to their study of similar civilizations — finding links between previous cultures and thereby improving our collective knowledge of ancient cultures.

Sayhuite Stone

It is known, for example, that the Incans were remarkable builders of structures that have withstood the ravages of time, volcanic activity, and frequent earthquakes. They did this by sculpturing the stone blocks and fitting them together in such a fine and exact way, and without the use of mortar, that it was almost impossible to slip a knife between them. This way of building, as seen for example at Machu Picchu, was first recorded in 300 BC near Lake Titicaca, and in Bolivia from around 400 AD. This illustrates that the Incas utilized the expertise of all its peoples within its empire.

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Since we are always searching for the answers to archaeological puzzles, it is imperative that we learn to respect and protect such discoveries of ancient artifacts and architecture, and to do our best to preserve them. Maintaining the archaeological site of Sayhuite, for example, has meant protecting the monolith from vandalism and also from natural erosion. To educate the general public is crucial so that all who visit such historical and archaeological sites come back with an appreciation of the significance of preserving them for the sake of future generations.