Pre-Inca Andean Cultures
Created | Updated Apr 3, 2007
The Inca1 are by far the best-known of the ancient Andean peoples, since they ruled the entire region comprising modern Peru and Bolivia, as well as parts of Ecuador and Chile, when the first Europeans arrived. Although the Conquistadors2 suppressed the Inca culture and destroyed their cities, they also left eyewitness accounts of the Inca and took away samples of their artefacts, allowing modern historians to reconstruct their lifestyle in some detail.
Yet not only was the Inca empire comparatively short-lived, there were several culturally distinct empires in the region before them. Since each of these was eradicated by their successors, just as the Inca would eventually be eradicated by the Spanish, and since none of them developed writing in the modern sense3, we know little about them other than what we can deduce from their architecture and artefacts. Each culture is therefore named after either their capital or their best-known ruins. These are clearly not the names they would have given to themselves.
Note that due to the variety of languages involved, (Spanish, Quechua and Aymara, plus dozens of local dialects), and the lack of a written language prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there are several spellings of many of the proper nouns in this article. Where more than one is in widespread use, this has been indicated with brackets, as in: 'Inca (or Inka)'. In all cases, pronunciation is identical.
South American archaeology is divided into two main eras; the earlier period pre-dating the use of pottery is known as the Preceramic, and is divided into six sub-periods (Preceramic I to Preceramic VI). The Ceramic period then begins with the Initial Period, lasting from around 1800 to 900 BC. Each of these groupings represents several distinct cultures in different areas and with different technologies and artistic styles.
From very early in South American history, a divide became apparent between the mountainous Andean region and the much dryer coastal areas. The oldest known mummies in the world were produced by the Chinchorros people, in around 6000 BC. The highland Kotosh people produced textiles and lengthy irrigation canals, while the lowland peoples such as the Cupisnique developed pottery and the religious use of narcotics.
The first signs of urban civilisation in South America belong to the Norte Chico, who dominated northern Peru from around 3000 to 1800 BC. This makes them contemporary with the oldest settled civilisations in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley and thus one of the earliest sedentary human civilisations, in spite of South America being the last of the continents (other than Antarctica) to be settled by humans.
Their best-known site is at Caral, in the arid coastal region of northern Peru. This site features a huge pyramid and many musical instruments were found there. No weapons have been discovered, leading archaeologists to conclude that this was a primarily peaceful culture. The finding of a single simple quipu indicates that these recording devices were in use from the dawn of South American civilisation, rather than being a late development as previously believed. It is worth pointing out that the Norte Chico civilisation does not appear to have developed any visual arts or ceramics, although they were skilled weavers.
The decline of the Norte Chico culture was followed by the flourishing of an array of disparate groups. It is unclear whether this is linked to the development of ceramics at around this time.
Early Horizon 900 BC - 200 AD
Around 1000 - 900 BC, the entire Andean region came under the control of a single culture. This period is therefore referred to by archaeologists as a 'Horizon'. This may have been due to military conquest, economic expansion or trade between a group of independent city-states; however, the most likely explanation is religious. The Chavin cult is recognisable by its depictions of a stylised jaguar god. The culture is labelled Chavin after Chavin de Huantar, the largest and best-preserved site of this culture. This site has two main sections, an Old Temple and a New Temple. The Old Temple is a U-shaped structure, with extensive underground passages. Among these tunnels is the Lanzon, a three-sided carved obelisk totally concealed underground and visible only through narrow slits from where neither its top nor its base can be seen.
It is theorised that there was a deep symbolic or initiatory meaning in visiting this object. There may also have been use of concealed water-channels within the temple to produce eerie noises. The Tello Obelisk was associated with the New Temple, and probably stood in the centre of the sunken open-air courtyard. Many carvings of heads were embedded in the temple walls, and are believed to have been of drug-users. They feature protruding eyes, bared teeth and bars emerging from the nostrils that may be blood from a nose bleed - all symptoms of the use of a narcotic derived from the San Pedro cactus.
The Chavin are known for their textiles, many of which have survived in some of the arid coastal regions that their range included. These fabrics were colourful tapestries that were of a closeness of weave that even modern machines have difficulty matching. Many are collected in the textile galleries of the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History in Lima. The Chankillo solar calendar is also from this period.
Chavin civilisation came to an end around 300 BC, and the area again fragmented into several distinct and competing civilisations. This between-Horizons period is classified as an Intermediate period.
Early Intermediate 200 - 600 AD
Although there are believed to have been many independent cultures during this period, two became large empires, and it is for these that we have by far the best archaeological evidence.
The Moche (sometimes called the Mochica) ruled the northern coastal region from around 1 to 500 AD4. They are believed to have used military force to conquer this region. They produced some of the most striking and beautiful artefacts of any Andean civilisation. They are particularly known for their pottery, which included not just drinking vessels but sculpture, using moulds for the first time in South American history. All aspects of daily life are shown, from portraits of notable individuals to single hands. A large proportion of these artworks deal with varied sexual practices. The Rafael Larco Herrera Archaeological Museum has probably the finest collection of Moche pottery, including an entire gallery dedicated to erotica.
Although we know from illustrations on the pottery that the Moche had quality textiles, the wetter local climate means that none have survived.
The largest pre-Colombian structure in the Americas is the Huaca del Sol5. After centuries of erosion and deliberate mining by the Spanish, this now resembles a large mound (often called a pyramid, although it does not have a tetrahedral shape) of uncertain purpose. It would once have been an imposing structure, painted with religious devices and gods. The nearby Huaca de Luna6 is better preserved, with coloured pigment still visible on the walls. An extensive collection of similar mounds at Sipan produced one of the finest archaeological finds from the Americas in 1987, when an undisturbed burial chamber was opened. This contained much gold and precious stones, worked into jewellery of exquisite quality. It also featured the corpses of several retainers to the main internee, including one guard whose feet had been amputated. Nicknamed 'The Lord of Sipan', this find is comparable in value only to the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, and it is possible to argue that some of the jewellery is of finer quality. In a lower chamber of the same tomb was another burial from a slightly earlier Moche period, now known as the Old Lord of Sipan.
Since 1987 several other notable burials have been unearthed. The disinterment of a tattooed woman at El Brujo in 2005 is one of the best-preserved finds of its type in the Americas, and surprised archaeologists by having included weapons with the grave goods. As with the Lord of Sipan, followers appear to have been sacrificed to accompany their masters into the afterlife. A magnificent Moche headdress, stolen from a grave 20 years previously, was recovered in London in 2006 and returned to Peru.
The fall of the Moche culture coincides with extreme climatic conditions from 563 - 594 AD. It is believed that three decades of floods followed by a similar period of drought led to starvation and internal strife.
The Nazca (or Nasca) existed on the southern coast of modern Peru from around 300 - 800 AD (overlapping the Moche chronologically). They are better known, due to the unusual archaeological traces they left behind. They also practised an unusual form of burial, with corpses being left in a sitting position in an underground chamber surrounded by grave goods, but with no surface marking. The arid conditions of the coastal desert means that these bodies mummify naturally. Although finding such burials is valuable for archaeologists, they are also tempting to tomb-robbers, and parts of the desert outside the modern town of Nazca are littered with holes, scraps of cloth and pieces of bone where impoverished locals have found a burial and removed the easily saleable items. The Nazca are also known for their polychrome ceramics.
Other Early Intermediate cultures include the Salinar, Paracas Necropolis, Chimor, Aymara, Cuzco and others.
Middle Horizon 600 - 1000 AD
The Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) culture was based at the site of the same name in northern Bolivia, by the shores of Lake Titicaca (although movement of the lake means that the city is now several kilometres from the shore). Although inhabited since 400 BC, the city did not come to prominence for nearly a thousand years. This site is divided into three main areas; a raised mound, a sunken court and a ground-level arena. These are believed to represent the heavens, Earth and underworld. The stonework is of an irregular but closely-fitted style that would later be adopted more famously by the Inca, and there appears to be much use of symbolism and alignment among the religious architecture - another key influence on the Inca.
The most famous relic is El Monolitho, an androgynous statue that now features on Bolivian banknotes. Also notable is a great archway, carved with illustrations that clearly once had a mystical significance, now largely lost. This 'Staff God' or 'Gateway God' was common to the Tiwanaku and Wari cultures. Tiwanaku became briefly famous outside Bolivia in the 1960s when Erich von Daniken proposed that it had been constructed by aliens, along with the Nazca Lines which he considered to be landing-strips.
Orthodox archaeologists chart a slow rise in Tiwanaku culture, from around 400 AD to its zenith at around 700 AD. This was boosted by the development of ridged fields (unlike the later Inca terraces), which may represent the most fertile that the altiplano has ever been. These would have required huge amounts of labour to build and maintain, and after they fell into disrepair they were never restored.
The Wari (or Huari) ruled most of the Peruvian coast from 700 - 1000 AD, and left notable ruins at Huari and Pikillacta. They were culturally similar to the Tiwanaku, but politically distinct, and it is known that the two were at war at one stage. From their archaeological traces, the Wari appear to have been aggressive and militaristic, with important sites at Pikillacta and Wilcahuain (or Wilkawayan).
Late Intermediate 1000 - 14767 AD
The Chimu culture grew out of Moche, and were conquered by the Inca just 50 years before the Spanish arrived. Their most significant archaeological site is Chan Chan. This is a group of cities, each inhabited sequentially, and built exclusively out of mud bricks. Taken as a whole, this site constitutes the largest mud-brick city in the world. Since each section contains one major tomb complex, it is believed that each monarch would abandon his predecessor's city and arrange for the construction of a new metropolis surrounding his own mausoleum8. Decoration was frequent, with geometrical patterns that appear to represent fishing nets.
Other Late Intermediate cultures include the Chachapoyas, Chancay, Aymara and Sican peoples. The Chimu appear to have been culturally very similar to the Sican people, until conquering them around 1370. The early Inca were also present during this period, although confined to the Cusco Valley.
Third Horizon - The Inca, 1476 - 1534
The Inca empire existed from at least 1438 until its destruction by the Spanish in 1533. Their expansion began in earnest with the conquest of their local rivals the Chankas in the 1430s, and their rule is sometimes dated from this event. Their domination of the Andes was not completed until the subjugation of the Chimu in 1470, barely a generation before the arrival of the Spanish.
As with many ancient civilisations, it is not always clear what caused the collapse of each culture. With some - notably the Moche - it seems clear that a climatic catastrophe was the main cause, while for others - such as the Chimu - it was conquest by another group. There are, however, several more cultures whose reasons for collapse are currently less than clear.
In modern terms, all these cultures, including the Inca, were stone-age (neolithic). In modern parlance, this indicates primitiveness and even an inability to learn. It should be clear to the reader that in South America, stone-age peoples achieved a sophisticated level of artistic achievement and technological skill. It should also be clear that they were by no means a homogenised group.