Chavin de Huantar lies in a narrow valley in the high Andes, 3,200m (10,500ft) above sea level. You can’t see the temple until you’re in it. The dramatic, vertical landscape was the carefully chosen location for this exquisite example of Chavin architecture. The bottom of the valley, where two rivers meet, dominates the flat land around it and would have attracted visitors from miles around.

The temple, now protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, is thought to have first been occupied around 5,000 years ago, becoming a cultural centre for people living in ancient Peru in about 1,000BC.

“Chavin was built in a risky spot, in a highly flood-prone location,” explains John Rick, associate professor of anthropology, Stanford. “They were aware of the risk of floods and they built towards these risks and not away from them. The monumentality was not only to impress visitors but also to tell them that the creators were capable of challenging nature successfully. And they did very well with it.”

It’s not the biggest site of its kind, but probably contains the most interesting secrets. Structures 25m (82ft) high surround a platform the size of a football pitch. Exposed granite stonework is adorned with art. Someone seeing it for the first time could not fail to be impressed.

The centre of the temple is a world apart. A complex of underground spaces and tunnels transported visitors into a place where their minds would be very susceptible to ritual activity, sound and visual effects. The priests at Chavin seemed able to produce experiences with no rational explanation. To the uninitiated, their powers raised them to a level of demi-god.

They were using hydraulics, acoustics, mirrors, psychoactive drugs – John Rick

Lost in a labyrinth of underground tunnels lit by sunlight, adorned with stone carvings that appear to roar at passers-by, water that rushed up to meet them, visitors would have been completely disoriented by the experience. “It was a convincing system,” says Rick. “And it pushed the innovation of advanced technology. They were using hydraulics, acoustics, mirrors, psychoactive drugs. They made water dance and sing by its motion through canals. The creators of the temple were pushing their scientific understanding forwards. This is a way of showing off but in a very serious – cultic – sense.”

The hallucinogenic drugs came from several indigenous cactus species. “We have representations of the plants with people carrying the cactus. In the same stone art we see the effects. A number of the plants are taken as snuffs – it’s very irritating. We have representation of mucus flow, wide staring eyes and other features like pain which can be matched with drug users still using these drugs in the Amazon basin. And we have paraphernalia; snuffing tubes, tablets, mortars.

“The drugs fit hand in glove with what was going on at Chavin. They were credibility drugs, they’re not the most extreme where you’re completely out of your world – the users weren’t catatonic. You live with them and become more impressionable. They’re ideal for this system.”

So who were these people travelling from far and wide to a remote, inaccessible plateau high in the Andes for the sole purpose of being initiated through a labyrinthine temple by god-like priests? The answer lies in what they brought with them, and what they hoped to take away.

No system is completely stable – they’re all strategies to get us to invest in someone and it all started with simple belief systems – John Rick

At the time, anyone in a position of power in a village or local political system was looking for a way to reinforce their authority. Military power was not very effective – local leaders only had control over so many people and power in warring cultures was likely to change hands frequently, and bloodily. The solution, suggests Rick, was to have your people buy into a belief system, and to show them that your power was ordained from above. “This was the beginning of organised government,” says Rick. “No system is completely stable – they’re all strategies to get us to invest in someone and it all started with simple belief systems.”

There’s evidence that visitors from far away came here – objects brought here from at least 500km (310 miles), “which at the time would be an extraordinary distance to travel,” says Rick. “This leads us to think the people that came here were important figures. This was a cult for the secondary elite who were now emerging and for whom Chavin fit very well in their world view.”

Visitors would be asked for contributions of labour to show their commitment to the cult. Local leaders would bring expert workers with them who could help to construct these intricate temples. There’s evidence of exquisite pottery and stone work from far away. In return, only the leaders would be permitted to enter the temple. The more important you were, or the more you could offer the cult, the further into the temple you could pass in a kind of initiation ceremony. By doing so, they were committing themselves to the cult, and being touched by the god-like powers of the priests. “This was a conspiracy, you could almost say, of people working in league with each other and Chavin impressed them.”

Rick thinks there might have been eight to 20 major cult centres in the central Andes competing with each other for followings. It was the purpose of the centres to develop technology that would impress people. For example, there’s another site to the north with evidence of gold, which Chavin doesn’t have. This other site might have impressed visitors with their ability to control light.

“What makes Chavin special is that the priesthood left an excellent record,” says Rick. “This stage in society is generally not well recorded – many of these formative periods are destroyed and rarely do we see it so well preserved. When Chavin fell as a cultural system there wasn’t much damage. The underground spaces were effectively sealed up.”

By studying the origins of sites like Chavin de Huantar, Rick hopes to show that modern belief systems began from similar origins. “There are parallels all over the modern world where complex systems developed. There’s nothing intrinsically human about authority structures. They’re created and we believe in them so they continue to exist. All privilege groups are belief systems.

It would seem that the things that are used to impress us today were exactly what impressed the people at Chavin thousands of years ago

“If we look at our society with an understanding of where authority comes from it makes our own symbols and architecture more understandable,” Rick says. “Basic symbols like flags – dynasties, countries. How many company presidents – or country presidents for that matter – come to power through subtle group activities, actions, images that convince people they have the right to run the show and have salaries 1,000 times greater than their workers? We believe in it because we don’t have revolutions every day in our companies. We all have the belief system that hierarchies are credible.”

It would seem that the things that are used to impress us today; huge state monuments, demonstrations of wealth or power, were exactly what impressed the people at Chavin thousands of years ago. And Rick says you can still feel the effects today.

“The things that were built into the site to make it impressive then, still are impressive now. When we walk into the site to excavate, the feelings of awe and privilege and fascination is not purely of our own invention. We’re still getting the message from these priests 3,000 years ago. It emphasises common ideas. We’re not different from humans 3,000 years ago. When you put something in the ground or on the ground, the ceremonies keep going on. Just not in ways they could ever have dreamed of.”

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William Park is BBC Future's social media producer. He tweets at @williamhpark.

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