National Geographic
Menu

Zaña, Peru: The Town That Almost Was

Sarah Kennedy is a zooarchaeologist investigating the lives of native Peruvians under Spanish rule in their colonial period. By analyzing the remains of animals in past settlements, she is able to piece together a mosaic of knowledge about how ancient people lived.

A sign advertising typical sweets sold in Zaña. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
A sign advertising typical sweets sold in Zaña. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

This summer, I have been excavating and analyzing archaeological material from pre-colonial and colonial fishing settlements in northern Peru. At the same time, I’ve been living in a beautiful, quaint little town called Zaña, which is situated about an hour’s drive on rough, dirt roads from our excavation site near the Pacific Ocean.

Surrounded by fertile land and cornfields, many of Zaña’s remaining locals spend their time in their “chakras” or agricultural plots. I say “remaining locals” because Zaña has all the makings of a present-day ghost town. Numerous empty colonial-period churches and convents sit in ruins around the town, making for a stark contrast to the modern cars and moto-taxis that zip on by. Many of the streets are empty, except for an occasional stray dog or local vendor selling bread or ice cream treats.

A small burrowing owl looks on from atop the ruins of a Colonial church. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
A small burrowing owl looks on from atop the ruins of a colonial church. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
The central plaza of Zaña, decorated for the festival of Corpus Christi. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
The central plaza of Zaña, decorated for the festival of Corpus Christi. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

Though one might not know it today, with its small, dusty streets and slow pace of life, Zaña has had a rich history full of power and intrigue, as well as tragedy and destruction. As we are showing from our archaeological excavations near Zaña, the area surrounding Zaña and the Zaña Valley has had human occupation for thousands of years, well before the Spanish founded the city in 1563. However, events in the Colonial Period (in the 16th and 17th centuries) were key to the eventual demise and current “ghost-town” appearance of the area.

The Coliseo de Gallos (The Rooster Coliseum), where traditional cock fighting still occurs in Zaña. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
The Coliseo de Gallos (The Rooster Coliseum), where traditional cock fighting still occurs in Zaña. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

With the official name of “La Villa de Santiago de Miraflores de Zaña”, the town was founded with visions of economic and political grandeur. Zaña was founded in a great location, economically speaking, roughly 50 or so kilometers inland between the rich marine waters of the Pacific Ocean to its west and the highland Andes Mountains to its east. It is also situated between the fertile Jequetepeque and Lambayeque river valleys, making it a perfect intermediary for trade routes throughout northern Peru. It also sits in the rich, fertile Zaña River Valley, which was capable of producing high-yield crops of maize, fruit, and other important commodities.

Due to these attributes, the Spanish began to flock to Zaña and within a short time period, it was a highly productive, flourishing community with a very well-off population of Spanish elites. African slaves were imported to the area to augment the existing pool of indigenous labor the Spanish used for their economic exploits and many important churches and convents were built in the city. Gold and silver mining were also important sources of income for the area, increasing Zaña’s wealth and economic draw. Zaña was so prosperous in the 16th and 17th centuries that there was even talk of it becoming the political capital of Peru, providing a possible alternative to the rich port city of Lima (La Cuidad de los Reyes, or the City of Kings).

The town of Zaña, as seen from atop the ruins of the colonial convent. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
The town of Zaña, as seen from atop the ruins of the colonial convent. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

Like all good tragedies and stories about failed dreams of glory and splendor, Zaña was on the cusp of becoming one of the most important cities in the New World when disaster struck in the form of a few very unfortunate events. By the late 1680s, a little over one hundred years after the founding of the city, word began to spread of the grandeur and opulence of Zaña, and it wasn’t just the Spanish that started to become interested in Zaña’s wealth.

In 1686, pirate Edward Davis led a raid on Zaña, taking the citizens unaware and sacking the city, making off with all possible forms of wealth and trade goods. Zaña was in the process of recovery from multiple pirate attacks in the early 1700s when disaster struck again. This time, it was mother nature that attacked the city, with torrential rains beginning in the early part of 1720 that finally led to the rising of the Zaña River and the eventual flooding and destruction of the entire city of Zaña on the 15th of March of the same year.

A view of church ruins, including fields of corn that now surround the structure. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
A view of church ruins, including fields of corn that now surround the structure. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Standing ruins of another local Colonial church. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Standing ruins of another local Colonial church. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

After the rains stopped and the river waters finally lowered, all that was left of the opulent city were the skeletal remains of the lavish churches and convents surrounding it. Most of the Spanish packed up and never came back to Zaña, leaving their African slaves to fend for themselves. To this day, many of the residents of Zaña have African heritage and can trace their family ancestry back to those early years after the destruction of the city. Now, the old spires and columns of colonial architecture are surrounded only by corn fields and bands of vultures.

A colonial church sitting among farm fields. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
A colonial church sitting among farm fields. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Remains of a colonial church new Zaña. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Remains of a colonial church near Zaña. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

In our excavations at Carrizales, a colonial “reduccion” settlement of indigenous peoples to the west of Zaña, we can also see the aftermath of the flooding disaster that brought an untimely end to Zaña’s bid for power and fame. Our settlement of Carrizales was also wiped out during the rains and flooding of the early 1700s, and was then abandoned as the local people migrated to different settlements further away. The dynamic environment of the North Coast of Peru was an ever-present problem for prehispanic and colonial peoples alike, and disastrous events such as those that occurred in Zaña and Carrizales serve as testaments to what can happen when human will and the environment collide.

Remains of the outside of the covent. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Remains of the outside of the convent. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Inside the colonial convent. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Inside the colonial convent. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

Read More by Sarah Kennedy

Comments

  1. Carolyn Bradley
    August 6, 11:22 pm

    This is a fascinating article, and Zaña looks beautiful from these photos. After reading this, I am very curious about the “remaining locals” living there.

  2. Ryan
    August 3, 11:07 am

    Great article Sarah!