Antiquities in Perú

Antiquities in Perú

The section on Perú's history gives a broad-brush picture of life before the Spanish. In brief, people settles in Perú around 13,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. A range of cultures emerged, expanded and lasted, typically, several hundred years before collapsing. As they are usually succeeded by a gap rather than a conqueror, the reason for this was probably natural, relating to the fragility of Perú's coastal agriculture and fishing under the uncertain el Niño current. Written history described several acute climatic events, and pre-history undoubtedly encountered these as well, but with less resilience.

The figure shows the evolution of the most important of these cultures from around 900 BC to the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. The regional powers collide with the Inca empire as a sentence does with a full stop. Superior organisation itself fell before the invincible technology of the Spanish.

Much of the figure is not coloured. This may reflect a state of rootless anarchy in the regions in question, serfdom or our ignorance. Each of the cultures marked by coloured areas had their centres of religion and power, and each developed its characteristic iconography.


The cultures of Perú










Inca empire














Huarí / Warí












































900 BC






We have no idea how much contact the Southern cultures had with their Northern counterparts before the arrival of the Incan empire. The Moche traded far South into Chile, and the coastal cultures certainly had prolonged contact. This is probably less true in the case of the Andean cultures, which appear to have had exchanges with the coast, rather than down the spine of the Andes.The cultural sequence is given in much more detail at the foot of this section.


The cultures of Perú


Coastal peoples

Peoples of the sierra

1532AD - 1440AD



1400AD - 900AD



800AD - 500AD

Moche V



Moche (I-IV)
Lima (Maranga)
Paracas Necrópolis


300BC - 900BC

Huaca Lucía


800BC - 1800BC

Caral (ancient)
La Florida


1800BC - 3000BC

Huaca Prieta
El Paraiso

La Galgada

3500BC - 11000BC



Whole libraries have been written on the archaeology or Perú, and generations of scholars have worked on the subject. Here, we try to outline some of what is known about the key cultures. The Incas, in particular, are reviewed in depth and we do not repeat this here. The section on history sets out the general background against which you may care to set these snippets, and the map section offers you an overlay that shows how the various cultures interacted geographically.

The Caral culture [more here, in the Lima-Trujillo circuit] is probably the most ancient of the institutionaly centralised, organised cultures in Perú. Radiocarbon dating places it at least three millennia before the Christian era. The Andes were settled around 9000 years ago, although controversial views place this further back in time. The first organised culture was that of Chavin (900-200 B.C.) This group dominated the central Andes, bringing together technology, social organisation, religion and communications. Despite the very handsome What is known for certain is that trade and artistic influence, architecture and military artifacts were spread out from this centre in what must have been a trade network covering the central and northern sierra of Perú. More here.

Chavin de Huantar is the premier site for this culture, offering plazas and ceremonial buildings of a high order. It is located in an important valley East of the Callejon de Huaylas, and makes a fine day trip from Huaraz. The site was probably a religious centre, and images of jaguares and the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus figure widely in this. The wall-panel and flagstone glyphs at the site are well-preserved and well-presented. The wall-boss gargoyles figure widely in Central American sites, and undoubtedly influenced those find at Huantar. Chavin art spread widely in Perú, and influenced what followed.

Chavin ceramics are also well-preserved, and are sophisticated and appealing. So-called stirrup-spout vessels are characteristic - although now thought to have derived from Ecuador - and these were later replicated in many subsequent cultures. Motifs are often stamped in rows into the clay, or painted. Matt and gloss areas are frequently chequered across the bodies of vessels. Gold is a frequent feature of Chavin sites, although subsequent cultures are probably responsible for recycling its best products as their own.

The Cupisnique culture (1200-200 B.C.) predates Chavin, but has had far less influence, perhaps because Chavin eventually assimilated it. It was focused on the mid-North coast of the country, between the Virú and Lambayeque river valleys. Its unity came from a common way of life and forms of expression, rather than from a central authority. A trading network exchanged inland and Amazonian goods for coastal products, and irrigated agriculture is found for the first time in Perú.

Cupisnique ceramics are typically monochrome and in a dark hue. They use the stirrup-spout form employed by Chavin, often carved before firing with glyphs, but also representative ceramics.

The South-Central region was home to the coastal Paracas culture, which ran from 600 to 175BC. This culture was essentially maritime, and irrigation-based farmers of the desert valleys. Their underground canals and the air holes that served them are still in commercial use today. Paracas erected large mud brick complexes, but these have not suffered the passing years well. The culture is mostly known for its textiles, ceramics and the remarkable state of the buried bodies which it left. More here.

These last have been preserved by the dryness of the Ica desert. Tombs were created by digging a hole in the sand and then lowering the body into this in a basket. Most were wrapped with and seated on textiles, which were also preserved. In addition, food offerings, ceramics and pets are found with the bodies; as are trophy heads.

The bodies are remarkable not only for their state of preservation, for the Paracas people had taken to head-binding of infants in order to shape the skull into an oval, prolapsed shape. Examples of these alien-looking skulls can be seen in the excellent Ica museum. The impact that this process had on the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid is evidence by the common practice of trepanation. Some skulls have as many as ten holes cut in them, presumably with stone tools, and it is possible to estimate from the regeneration of the bone that people survived for decades with open holes in their heads.

Paracas ceramics are influenced by Chavin, but polychrome and embellished by marine themes, birds and other natural forms. Most have a black ground, and are painted rather than glazed. Production must have been prodigious, as large areas of the desert are scattered with shards.

Paracas textiles are embroidered rather than woven, and the amount of work that was dedicated to any one item recovered from a tomb suggests that such mantels were of great social significance. The motifs tend to be either linear or block, where the former uses four colours applied over a coloured woven cloth. Much of the work consists of lines, edges and corner ornamentation, but natural themes (although, oddly, seldom any maritime images) are added to this. An important figure in the religion of Paracas was the Big-eyed God, who features widely. These fabrics have a formal appearance and do not differ from one time horizon to another.

Block images use many colours, and appear to be the creative output of individuals. They change radically from site to site. Stylised human figures - often with exaggerated grimaces - are set in frames and repeated in these fabrics. Most do not convey a sense of a happy society, being unquiet, jagged and conveying helplessness: perhaps it is the result of the head binding.

The Northern maritime area around Piura and Tumbes supported the contemporary Vicús culture (200-600 A.D.) Its geographical situation meant that it was heavily influenced by cultural cues from Ecuador.

Late Vicús culture was overshadowed by Moche, about which more below. The culture is noted for its metalwork, often showing animals and human figures. Their ceramics tended to have representational form, and were often painted after firing.

Moche was the first aggressive theocratic culture of conquest in Perú. Centred on the Lambayeque valley, they developed a coastal economy based on farming and fishing. This was, however, supplemented by conquest and the empire that this built (100-700AD) occupied the North-Central coast for around 500 kilometres. Many tributary cultures converged on its norms and were absorbed by it.

Agriculture began fully to exploit the potential for irrigation in the coastal valleys, and hundreds of kilometres of canals were dug. Modern canals are only now beginning to re-exploit the land which the Moche brought into cultivation. Farming raised corn, peanuts, peas and beans. Squash and avocado seeds have been recovered from middens. The kept ducks, guinea pigs and dogs for meat. Seals were hunted, and a wide range of seafood caught from the same reed boats which one can see in the region today.

They were great builders, working with sun-dried clay bricks stamped with a sign to indicate either who made it, or for whom it was made. The truncated pyramids which they built could be 75m tall. This was a hierarchical society, with nobles, artisans, land workers, servants and a large slave population. Warriors were much celebrated in ceramics and other artifacts The influential lived closest to the pyramids, and ceramics show them finely dressed, carried on litters. The ruin at Sipán yielded the tomb of a noble, who can now be seen at the interesting museum.

Moche ceramics and the paintings on them are of a high order. Vessels were often sculptural as well as utilitarian. Paintings show scenes of life, from surgical amputation to capture of naked prisoners, from graphic sexual objects to depictions of jewellery, fabrics and items of luxury. Portrait pots, showing recognizable individuals, are widespread and individualistic, suggesting that the pot depicts its owner. The role of these ceramics in the society is, it appears, at least as much ceremonial as practical. The images stood for the written word in setting out issues of power and hierarchy.

We know little of the religion of Moche. It replaced the jaguar cult of Chavin with an organised system that used human sacrifice, the mutilation of prisoners and the uplifting of the social status quo. There are frequent motifs which show humans fighting supernatural entities, but none which imply collaboration between these. Moche warriors were expected to compete in ritual battles. in which the loser was exsanguinated - that is, had his throat lightly cut and a tube inserted to drain off the blood into containers. This may have been related to an evocation to the rains, but the evidence is scant. We do know that the loser in one of these ritual battles lost when the winner knocked his ceremonial hat off his head.

Archaeologists divide the Moche culture into four periods. The first is artistically derivative. The period from 300-600AD provides the finest works - divided into Moche II and III - whilst the last hundred years of the empire are marked by artistic decline. The culture also worked in metal, textiles and wood, but limited amounts of these artifacts have survived the damper climate. Metal objects afforded high status to their owners, and gold-plating of copper objects was used to create a fine show. The decline of the Moche was sudden, and evidence from research into climate change suggests that the offshore currents changed for a period of up to a century. This would have precipitated decades of heavy rains - dangerous in a desert environment - followed by a prolonged highland drought, and therefore limited rain run off on which the culture relied. The latetr stages of the Moche culture were lived out in fortified and isolated communities along the Río Jequetepequete, which visitors can follow on their way to Cajamarca. The remnant Moche were conquered by the Huari. [More here.]

The eventual decline of the Huarí left a vacuum. The Chímu - evolving from the Moche cultural remnants - filled this gap in the North, the Lima culture in the coastal midlands.

North-Central Perú supported the isolated Recuay culture, which developed in the heartland of the defunct Chavin culture. This lasted from the beginning of the Christian era to around 650AD. This was a hierarchical and embattled society, living in fortified complexes. (It is related to and probably parent of the later, more grand Chachapoyas culture, which wrapped around the ceja de selva and survived until felled by the Incas. The Chachapoyas fortress of Kuellap with its kilometre long, 30 m high stone walls is well worth a visit.)

Recuay ceramics are complex, thin-walled near-ceramics, made from a white kaolin paste. Decorations are in negative and positive relief, symmetrical, geometrical and embellished with natural themes, humans and spirits. The decoration by relief also carried forward the Chavin tradition of working in stone, producing both plaques and free-standing sculpture.

The Southern end of the forumer Moche empire abutted against the Lima culture, (200-600 A.D.) This was focused on the Rimac and Lurin rivers. It developed large mud brick ceremonial centres, many of which are now embedded in Lima itself. These are, of course, easily visited. The huaca (pyramid) of Maranga is probably the most important of these. Whilst a minor site for this culture, the site established at Pachacamac endured as a focus for religion for 1000 years. The Lima culture used rather derivative ceramics, although it became heavily influenced by the dark-ground Paracas material. This was ornamented with strong colours in blocks, with fish and with peculiar blunt-headed snakes.

The Nazca culture developed from the Paracas influence, and survived from 200 to 600 A.D. It was less a political entity than a sprawl of coastal settlements, surviving on the sea and irrigated land. Adobe structures of some size exist, but they are not of the scale found elsewhere at the time. The more remarkable artifacts are the large glyphs made by clearing stones from the desert surface. (Stones acquire a brown "desert varnish" when exposed the wind and sun. Moving them exposes the lighter subsoil.)

These are chiefly abstract polygons, lines and rectangles. Theory has it that these were intended to mimic the spill marks of the season rivers, so encouraging rain.

Some alignments, particularly of geometrical figures, closely follow aquifers. Some paths may have led between important places, such as small hills. Others of them are figurative, or deploy smooth shapes such as spirals or zigzags.

It is thought that these are devotional mazes, representing a concept or a sacred animal or object, and that devotees walked these in prayer. In truth, we have no real idea what these were for or why people went to enormous effort to build them.

Nazca is known for its ceramics, which extend the Paracas school to use thirteen colours on fine, thin-walled and regular vessels. The themes shown are chiefly naturalistic, with birds and fish a very common motif.

The Huari - or Warí - culture (600-850 A.D.) developed in mid-South-Eastern mountains, but then expanded its influence enormously. Its eventual Northern administrative centre was 700 km North of Huari, at Viracochapampa, whilst its Southern centre was 300 km in the opposite direction, at Pikillaqta. It had a formal bureaucracy, tax collection and a standing army. It developed a major complex of roads by which to manage it domains. The Inca Tahuantinsuyu took Warí as a model for his developing empire several hundred years later. More here.

The centre of the culture was the city of Warí, near contemporary Ayacucho. This was a substantial city: the ruins cover an area of around twelve squared kilometres. The regional capitals have also left massive ruins, which are little-visited. The culture showed influences from Bolivia, from Moche and from Nazca (perhaps explaining the sub-tropic animals depicted in the desert glyphs.) Warí trade goods are found all over Perú.

The decline of Warí is, like most events in pre-literate Perú, unexplained. It was, however, sudden, leaving its Southern provincial capital as a civilisation in its own right for at least another century. The Warí vacuum created the Chanka in the sierra, the Chímu in the Northern coast and the Chancay culture in the midlands.

As Moche and Huarí declined, a Northern coastal culture developed around Lambayeque, and often known as Sicán. This endured from 700-1375 A.D. The culture absorbed influences from both cultures and synthesized them.

It is particularly noted for its metal work, which include the first widespread use of bronze and gilded bronze. Tumi knives, masks and jewellery are amongst the artifacts that have been recovered. Tombs and buildings were decorated with metal plaques, as were furniture, tools and coffins.

Sicán ceramics were made in a mould, and then decorated by incising and pasting whilst still wet. Some are painted, but most are monochrome.

Sicán acquired and was eventually swallowed up by a new neighbour, the Chímu culture (850-1450 A.D.) This developed around present-day Trujillo, where its capital of Chan Chan developed in the Moche valley. The adobe ruins extend to twenty square kilometres.

The Chímu evolved from the same roots as the Sicán, which is to say the cultural debris of the Moche and Huarí. The Chímu had a much more peaceful culture than those of their progenitors, and they were correspondingly more resilient, lasting against all challenges until overwhelmed and engrossed by the Inca. Their capital, Chan Chan ("Sun Sun") covers around 30 square kilometres near Trujillo.

They were traders as much as empire builders. Their direct rule came to cover only 100 kilometres of Perú's coast, but their ships traded with Chile, Ecuador and perhaps areas further North..Chímu came into contact with and eventually conquered the Sicán culture. Chímu co-existed for a while with with the Inca, but was overcome by it in 1450 A.D. More here.

Chímu ceramics were based on moulds and the assemble of various component parts to make the whole. They were fired to create a dark colour, but otherwise share many of the features of Moche artifacts

Sicán metal-working was absorbed as well, and items of silver and gold, bronze and copper were finely worked. Stamping, casting, chasing and plating were all brought to a high level of perfection. Textiles used wool, cotton and various decorative additions, such as bone, feathers and items of metal.

The other end of the Moche empire had been occupied by the Lima culture, conquered by the Warí and then released to its own devices after their collapse. The resulting Chancay society (1200-1450 A.D.) expanded North in the middle parts of the coast. Chímu reversed this expansion and conquered Chancay, the Incas eventually occupied both areas.

Relatively large quantities of Chancay textiles have survived, comprising embroidery, painted fabrics and fine gauzes. These are often made up into figures and dolls' faces. Subtle colours and sharp points of red and yellow show birds and what has been interpreted as a moon goddess.

Extensive cemeteries in the Ancón area prove a rich harvest of ceramics. These are up to 3 metres deep, offering communal burial sites. Forty or fifty offertory jugs are usually found in such tombs. Ceramics are usually black over a white ground, molded or occasionally formed by hand. Thin-necked pitchers are common, usually following a basic 'egg' shape. They are generally much larger than Perúvian ceramics. Dolls and highly simplified human figures with their arms raised - "cuchimilcos" - are made from solid clay, often decorated with geometrical motifs.

Inca culture lasted for a relatively short time, and its remnants are therefore somewhat limited. The Spanish conquest led to the physical destruction of many of its portable artefacts, and the chief relicts that we have are architectural rather than of the sort outlines above. There is much more on the Incas and the conquest here.