Peru Table of Contents

Pre-Inca Cultures

The first great conquest of Andean space began some 10,000 years ago when the descendants of the original migrants who crossed the land bridge over what is now the Bering Straits between the Asian and American continents reached northern South America. Over the next several millennia, hunter-gatherers fanned out from their bridgehead at Panama to populate the whole of South America. By about 2500 B.C., small villages inhabited by farmers and fishermen began to spring up in the fertile river valleys of the north coast of Peru.

These ancient Peruvians lived in simple adobe houses, cultivated potatoes and beans, fished in the nearby sea, and grew and wove cotton for their clothing. The catalyst for the development of the more advanced civilizations that followed was the introduction of a staple annual crop--maize (corn), and the development of irrigation, both dating from around the thirteenth century B.C. The stabilization of the food supply and ensuing surplus formed the foundation for the development of the great civilizations that rose and fell across the Andes for more than a thousand years prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

The Incas, of course, were only the most recent of these highly developed native American cultures to evolve in the Andes. The earliest central state to emerge in the northern highlands (that is, a state able to control both highland and coastal areas) was the Kingdom of Chavín, which emerged in the northern highlands and prospered for some 500 years between 950 B.C. and 450 B.C. Although it was originally thought by Julio C. Tello, the father of Peruvian archaeology, to have been "the womb of Andean civilization," it now appears to have had Amazonic roots that may have led back to Mesoamerica.

Chavín was probably more of a religious than political panAndean phenomenon. It seems to have been a center for the missionary diffusion of priests who transmitted a particular set of ideas, rituals, and art style throughout what is now northcentral Peru. The apparent headquarters for this religious cult in all likelihood was Chavín de Huantar in the Ancash highlands, whose elaborately carved stone masonry buildings are among the oldest and most beautiful in South America. The great, massive temple there, oriented to the cardinal points of the solstice, was perceived by the people of Chavín to be the center of the world, the most holy and revered place of the Chavín culture. This concept of God and his elite tied to a geographical location at the center of the cosmos--the idea of spatial mysticism--was fundamental to Inca and pre-Inca beliefs.

After the decline of the Chavín culture around the beginning of the Christian millennium, a series of localized and specialized cultures rose and fell, both on the coast and in the highlands, during the next thousand years. On the coast, these included the Gallinazo, Mochica, Paracas, Nazca, and Chimú civilizations. Although each had their salient features, the Mochica and Chimú warrant special comment for their notable achievements.

The Mochica occupied a 136-kilometer-long expanse of the coast from the Río Moche Valley and reached its apogee toward the end of the first millennium A.D. They built an impressive irrigation system that transformed kilometers of barren desert into fertile and abundant fields capable of sustaining a population of over 50,000. Without benefit of the wheel, the plough, or a developed writing system, the Mochica nevertheless achieved a remarkable level of civilization, as witnessed by their highly sophisticated ceramic pottery, lofty pyramids, and clever metalwork. In 1987 near Sipán, archaeologists unearthed an extraordinary cache of Mochica artifacts from the tomb of a great Mochica lord, including finely crafted gold and silver ornaments, large, gilded copper figurines, and wonderfully decorated ceramic pottery. Indeed, the Mochica artisans portrayed such a realistic and accurately detailed depiction of themselves and their environment that we have a remarkably authentic picture of their everyday life and work.

Whereas the Mochica were renowned for their realistic ceramic pottery, the Chimú were the great city-builders of pre-Inca civilization. As loose confederation of cities scattered along the coast of northern Peru and southern Ecuador, the Chimú flourished from about 1150 to 1450. Their capital was at Chan Chan outside of modern-day Trujillo. The largest pre-Hispanic city in South America at the time, Chan Chan had 100,000 inhabitants. Its twenty square kilometers of precisely symmetrical design was surrounded by a lush garden oasis intricately irrigated from the Río Moche several kilometers away. The Chimú civilization lasted a comparatively short period of time, however. Like other coastal states, its irrigation system, watered from sources in the high Andes, was apparently vulnerable to cutoff or diversion by expanding highland polities.

In the highlands, both the Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) culture, near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and the Wari (Huari) culture, near the present-day city of Ayacucho, developed large urban settlements and wide-ranging state systems between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1000. Each exhibited many of the aspects of the engineering ingenuity that later appeared with the Incas, such as extensive road systems, store houses, and architectural styles. Between A.D. 1000 and 1450, however, a period of fragmentation shattered the previous unity achieved by the Tiwanaku-Wari stage. During this period, scores of different ethnic-based groups of varying sizes dotted the Andean landscape. In the central and southern Andes, for example, the Chupachos of Huánuco numbered some 10,000, while the Lupacas on the west bank of Lake Titicaca comprised over 100,000.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress