The Chavín cult, whose iconography spread across much of Peru, was not a coherent pan-Peruvian religion, but more of a widespread – and unevenly interpreted – cult of the feline god. Chavín had a strong impact on the Paracas culture and later on the Nasca and Mochica civilizations. Theories as to the origin of its inspiration range from extraterrestrial intervention to the more likely infiltration of ideas and individuals or entire tribes from Central America. There is a resemblance between the ceramics found at Chavín and those of a similar date from Tlatilco in Mexico, yet there are no comparable Mexican stone constructions as ancient as these Peruvian wonders. More probable, and the theory expounded by medical doctor and Peruvian archeologist Julio Tello (1880 to 1947), is that the cult initially came up into the Andes (then down to the coast) from the Amazon Basin via the Marañón Valley. The inspiration for the beliefs themselves, which appear to be in the power of totemic or animistic gods and demons, may well have come from visionary experiences sparked by the ingestion of hallucinogens: one of the stone reliefs at Chavín portrays a feline deity or fanged warrior holding a section of the psychotropic mescalin cactus San Pedro, still used by curanderos today for the invocation of the spirit world. This feline deity was almost certainly associated with the shamanic practice of visionary transformation from human into animal form for magical and healing purposes, usually achieved by the use of hallucinogenic brews; the most powerful animal form that could be assumed, of course, was the big cat, whether a puma or a jaguar.
Most theories about the iconography of Chavín de Huantar’s stone slabs, all of which are very intricate, distinctive in style and highly abstract, agree that the Chavíns worshipped three major gods: the moon (represented by a fish), the sun (depicted as an eagle or a hawk) and an overlord, or creator divinity, normally shown as a fanged cat, possibly a jaguar. It seems very likely that each god was linked with a distinct level of the Chavín cosmos: the fish with the underworld, the eagle with the celestial forces and the cat with earthly power. This is only a calculated guess, and ethnographic evidence from the Amazon Basin suggests that each of these main gods may have also been associated with a different subgroup within the Chavín tribe or priesthood as a whole.
Chavín itself may or may not have been the centre of the movement, but it was obviously at the very least an outstanding ceremonial focus for what was an early agricultural society, thriving on relatively recently domesticated foods as well as cotton, and well-positioned topographically to control the exchange of plants, materials and ideas between communities in the Amazon, Andes and Pacific coast. The name Chavín comes from the Quechua chaupin, meaning navel or focal point, and the complex might have been a sacred shrine to which natives flocked in pilgrimage during festivals, much as they do today, visiting important huacas in the sierra at specific times in the annual agricultural cycle. The appearance of the Orion constellation on Chavín carvings fits this theory, since it appears on the skyline just prior to the traditional harvest period in the Peruvian mountains.