Pre-Contact Peru


Map of the major archaeological sites in Peru

The Andean cultures were the civilizations from what is now Columbia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and parts of Argentina. The region is defined by the Pacific Ocean and the Andean mountain range, both the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra, the 2 zones of the Andean range. Major cultures flourished on the strip of coastal desert by irrigating fields of corn, beans, cotton and peanuts, with potatoes added to the list of crops being grown in the highlands, where llamas and other camelids were herded. In the highlands, cultivation was done on terraced fields. The cultures in the desert were also dependent on the ocean, and the highlands traded with the jungles for goods. The interactions across diverse ecosystems produced a homogenous artistic expression in a flexible consistent style. Textiles predate ceramics in the Andean region by about 6000 years, appearing in about 8600 BCE. These are the most valuable commodity in the region, and are used as currency, badges of authority, emblems of social status, and guides to family affiliation. Much of their value resided in the time taken to create them. A weaver learned the craft through a teacher-apprentice system, and fine cottons were woven on back-strap looms. Woven cloths were covered in embroidery designs, and the background color was also embroidered.


Chavín Culture, Central Plaza at Chavín de Huantar, Peru, 900-200 BCE (photoBy Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The Early Horizon (1200-200 BCE) is the first of 3 periods of cultural unification. In this period, the Chavín culture (900-200 BCE) becomes the major unifying force. This culture is named for the northern highland ceremonial site of Chavín de Huantar, which was the driving force behind the cultural coalition, which was built at the convergence of 2 rivers, which was considered a propitious site for religious activity, tinkuy, a harmonious meeting of opposites.The site was populated by about 2-3000 people in the bottomlands surrounding the public architecture, and used a subsistence economy based on llama herding, rainfall farming, and irrigation agriculture.


Plan of the ceremonial center of Chavín de Huantar

There was a permanent manifestation in the visual arts of architectural features borrowed from both the desert and highland traditions. The structures were granite-faced earth and rubble platforms with stone lined corridors which required vast amounts of human resources and material to build.   The major temple is called the Old Temple, and is a U-shaped pyramid with a sunken circular court between the arms. It is east-facing, and is modeled on buildings from the central coast, with the sunken court from the north-central coast. These forms were popular on the coast for about 1000 years before they were emulated at Chavín de Huantar. By using basic elements of architecture and organization from distant places, the builders symbolically distanced themselves from their own history, and linked themselves with groups with whom the historical connections were limited. This was an invented tradition that was both unique and cosmopolitan. Flat-topped pyramids with sunken courts were not well adapted to the rainy season of the highlands, so the builders created a drainage, ventilation, and stone facing system that helped hold the structures up. Water was believed to circulate underground into the mountains from the source in the vast ocean upon which the earth floats. It was then transferred from the mountains to the sky by the Milky Way, and retuned to the fields as precipitation, then began the long journey back to the ocean. The drainage system therefore also bonds the architecture to the meteorological system, which was influenced by religious intervention. The sounds this made may have been used to the advantage of the shamans and priests,  as the drainage system causes the sound of water to be heard within the sunken temple, an effect that may have been amplified by the use of psychotropic substances in ritual.chavin_de_huantar_canal_06122009

Canal for channeling water, Central Plaza, Chavín de Huantar (photo By Dtarazona – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Chavín, Raimondi Stela, Chavin de Huantar (photo ByBy Original drawing by Antonio Raimondi (1824-1890) – The book of Antonio Raimondi, «El Perú», 1875, Public Domain,


Chavín culture, Tello Obelisk, Chavín de Huantar

Chavín, El Lanzón, Chavín de Huantar (photo By Reto Luescher – Own work, CC BY 2.5, and By Dtarazona – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Raimondi stone, whose original location is unknown, has a congested surface of incised lines on the polished granite. The figural style cultivates bewilderment with shifting maze-like images. It is a visually dense piece that is also transformational and reversible. The dominant motif is a frontally posed, standing polymorph (a being assembled with parts from many animals) that is called the Staff God, often later affiliated with the Inca creator god Virachocha, who later appears in both male and female forms. This deity may be either an earth or sky god, and is an assemblage of human and animal parts tied together by contour rivalry, or the simultaneous presentation of multiple images, as well as substitution, the technique of replacing an element with a similar but disjunctive motif. The anaconda, cayman, harpy eagle, owl, puma and jaguar are all used because of their strength, beauty, cunning, and ability to move between water, air, and land. These were often depicted as composite beings, and were the dominant carnivores of the tropical lowlands. This composite being’s duality is expressed through its firm rooting to the earth while descending from the sky. The eyeballs with upward rolling pupils imply a trance, and the mouth has extruded interlocking fangs. The piece is linear, and absolutely symmetrical, with an aversion to blank spaces called horror vacui. The Tello Obelisk was found in the open rectangular plaza in the latest part of the temple, which was probably not its original setting. The piece features plants and animals, with flying caymans donating domesticated lowland plants. There was an exotic focus of the art and architecture, with marine creatures also depicted. The Lanzón, a long granite shaft carved in the image of an anthropomorphic deity, is located in the subterranean chamber at the center of the temple. It faces east, and is probably the central cult image. It is the deity who mediated opposites, and personifies balance and order. It also represents the axis connecting the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. There is a cosmogram at its feet, which also appears in other Chavín art, and is a cruciform design with a central depression. This represents the 4 cardinal directions with the sacred center, and makes the ceremonial center a place of mediation between the heavens and the underworld. The organizing principle is that the cosmos comprises an infinite series of dual but complementary oppositions. There seems to have been a desire to transcend everyday reality and experience. The majority of the stone at the site was quarried some distance away. Often the central event in the religious rituals displayed is the ingestion of psychotropic plants, and mortars have been found that were probably used to grind these plants. These were used in religious rituals to communicate with the unseen powers permeating the natural world. There was a coherent view of human’s relationship to the different domains of the natural world and the cosmos. Chavín cosmology and art were disseminated through trade, and adaptations were made within each region up to 200 BCE.


Chavin, painted textile (photo By Lombards Museum – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Paracas Peninsula, South Coast, Peru (photo By Pavel Špindler, CC BY 3.0,

In the Early Intermediate period (200 BCE – 500 CE) , the Paracas culture, who inhabited a series of valleys in the South Coast from about 400 BCE, and had a wide geographic spread, rose to prominance. Within this culture, we initially see the creation of adaptation to the Staff God and his assistants in textile form.  The oculate being and its impersonators, possible some shamanic imagery or a deity, was often woven on the textiles, and seemed to replace the Staff God after the decline of the influence of Chavín in this area. Much of what is known from Paracas comes from the mummy bundles that have been dug up in the various necropoli.

Mummy bundle diagram, example, and burial

Paracas, Linear style Mummy mask with the Occulate Being and Fragment of textile with the Broad line style decoration (photo By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, and By Dornicke – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Paracas, Ceremonial Mantle with the Block color style (photo By Paracas style (-100 – 100) – 8gFkpt_R76VKXA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Textiles have animated contours, and are no longer absolutely symmetrical. The embroidered textiles held a complex visual symbol system in which the images served as ideograms, and made up the ritual language. There are 3 main styles of formal construction: the linear style, which is formally, iconographically, and conceptually abstract; the broad line style, whose formal and iconographic characteristics of depictions reveal a desire to represent ideographs rather than everyday objects; and the block color style, which was used to describe parts of the physically real world as well as ritual dress.The block-color style was a naturalistic, late fiber arts style with the shapes filled in with solid colors, and the figure-ground relationship established. The focus was on the description of tangible elements, which was appropriate for the depiction of specific cult images, and presented information about rank, roles, and occupation within society. The prominence of birds in the landscape is reflected in the textiles, and much of the animal and plant iconography is linked with the metaphysical.   The ecological order of the geographical setting was fundamental to the symbolic system. Human impersonators were depicted with one iconographic unit picked and represented without variation, which gave visual descriptions of actors, and the ritual attire became living, moving cult objects. The textiles were preserved in mummy bundles from high-status burials. The corpse was wrapped in coarse cotton cloth, and placed in a basket with fine textiles, ceremonial clothing, jewelry, and ceramics. This culture was also known for post-fire painted pottery modeled into flora and fauna.

Nazca, Geoglyphs (photo By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Unukorno – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Nazca, Stirrup-Spout Vessel, (photo By Rowanwindwhistler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Nazca (300/100 BCE – 700 CE) is a culture of the southern coastal deserts known for its ceramics and geoglyphs, or gigantic line drawings made in the desert crust. The culture also built large pyramidal structures for ceremonial purposes and an intricate system of underground canals. The geoglyphs are drawings of animals, fish, birds, geometrics, and anthropomorphs, some of which are over 100 meters long. Many of these figures are also depicted in the ceramics and textiles. The glyphs are formed when the oxidized granite crust is removed to expose the soil below. The lack of rain in the area has helped to preserve the glyphs. There is a concern with the relationship to the natural world, and a dependence on intensive agriculture utilizing irrigation as well as a worship of mountains and springs as life-giving sources. The geometric glyphs could be read as motifs of the water cult, since there is still a belief in the region that straight lines have power. Animals also relate to water or are manifestations of the gods. The anthropomorphs are deities associated with agricultural fertility and water. The weather deities were believed to reside in the mountains, and oversee their domains. The large glyphs were meant to attract their attention, and to invoke an increase in crop fertility though the means of a stable water supply. Ceramics usually have themes of complex figures with feline faces, human trophy heads, and shark or killer whale appendages, which relate to war, the taking of heads, and the use of blood offerings to the earth, sky, and water. Impersonators of these beings appeared in rites to “feed” the natural elements upon which human existence depended. There was a fertility cult associated with the harvest season, and the spider, dog and monkey were associated with this cult.


Cerro Blano (photo By Tyler Bell – Flickr: Huacca de la Luna/Huacca del Sol, CC BY 2.0,

Moche, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna (photo By Carl Ottersen – Flickr: 090323 018 Moche, CC BY 2.0, and By Carl Ottersen – Flickr: 090323 002 Moche, CC BY 2.0,

Moche (50-800 CE) was a militaristic state in the northern Coastal deserts, which are a rich fishing ground. The culture combined a coastal inheritance with intense intercourse with the highlands and the tropical lowlands as well as the north. Rafts for fishing were formed from bundles of reeds, and are shown on ceramics both in naturalistic and mythological scenes, as well as those involving sacrifice.   The sea and shore were important themes, with inversions in nature seen as the multiple related cosmic models at the roots of art. The western sea is seen as the edge of the world, a place of the unknown, death, and the entrance to the underworld, as well as an important source of life. They moved over 200 miles along the coast from the capital at Cerro Blanco, inhabited 100-600, and incorporated communities through conquest or allegiance. Communities were conquered for new land as well as control of the irrigation and sea coast and the acquisition of resources and sacred places. They practiced irrigation architecture, and the major buildings at their sites were oriented to the water sources, mountains, and celestial phenomena. The platform mounds of Cerro Blanco were constructed of sun dried brick called adobe. The Huaca del Sol, the largest solid pre-Hispanic adobe structure in the Americas, was tiered with temples at the top. This was the center of community life and the place of pilgrimage. The Huaca de la Luna is a group of long-low palace-type structures at the base and on the lower slopes of Cerro Blanco. This group was the site of the royal residence as well as a religious center. Both mounds were close to both the river and the sea. The entire site was laid out in relation to this hill.

Moche, Mountain pot and Effigy pot (photo By Rowanwindwhistler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Patrick.charpiat, Own work, 2009-03, CC BY 3.0,

The Moche are known for their stirrup-spout ceramics, which had an upright spout attached to an arched, hollow handle. These were originally hand-built, but later were mold made, and were often decorated with narrative paintings. Pottery was the most abundant art, and was considered sacred since it came from the earth and held nourishment for people and the gods. Action was conveyed by wrapping the figures around the vessel. These vessels are often modeled in effigy form as well as painted. The ceramics also often create analogies between the human body and mountains, with finger-mountains surrounding the rites of human sacrifice. This could also explain the origin of rivers with the creator god seated on one side. The art evinces the contact with the highlands and beyond. The Moche are known for their depictions of environmentally specific and night settings. The fine-line painting style is characterized by thin, nervous lines, and is very expressive. Vegetation is a common theme in art, and transformation is an important religious concept. Death and the afterlife were seen to be part of the cyclical process of art. Battle scenes depicted could be either historical or mythological as well as reenactments or ceremonial battles for sacrificial captives. Beliefs about the world were expressed in art, especially ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and murals, with stone uncommon and few large sculptures. Ritual objects and adornments declared the religious and political status of the wearer. Foxes and monkeys were associated with messenger runners because of their speed and agility, and hummingbirds were associated with runners and warriors because of their stabbing beak and speed. These were naturalistic and emotionally expressive, as well as object oriented, and were done in an action packed style with novel poses, detailed settings, and episodic scenes. Rulers used ritual to reinforce their ties with sacred mythological ancestors, and there was a complex ritual life that reflected a complex mythology. Warfare was both ritual and political, and all objects were thought to have life. Everyday reality and mythology were intertwined parts of a whole.


Sipan Lord Burial recreation

At the Moche site of Sipan, intact royal burials were found, which showed the wealth of the Moche elite. This site also gives a sense of how the burials at Cerro Blanco would have looked, before being “mined” by the Spanish. Here, the elite were buried with retainers, camelids, food, and a vast array of ceramics and gold and silver work, which showed the importance of those substances as tears of the sun and moon respectively.


Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca (photo By Alexson Scheppa Peisino(AlexSP) – Own work, Public Domain,

The Middle Horizon (700-1000) follows severe environmental degradation after a series of El Niños in the 6th and 7th centuries. The Wari-Tiwanaku (also Huari, 500-1000) come to the fore in this period. Tiwanaku is a city on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and had a population of 60,000 at its peak. The site is the convergence of the urco ( the west, highlands, dryness, pastoralism, celestialness, and masculinity) and the uma (the east, lowlands, wetness, agriculture, underworld, and femininity), making it taypi. It was called Taypikhala, the Stone in the Center, with the conceptual and social roots residing in fundamental organizational forms of ayllu, or lineages, and moiety (one of two basic tribal divisions) relationships. It controlled access to precious metals, pastures, and water for canals, and exploited to political dynamics of a symbolic place. It was situated at the point where the mountains and the sea converged. Wari was the twin capital that was built later. Tiwanaku is both a ceremonial complex and a residential center. The city was structured according to cosmic principles, and used symbolism of both sacred and secular power. It was conceived of as an axis mundi.

Tiwanaku, Akapana and Kalasasaya (photo By DeFries – originally posted to Flickr as IMG_1717, CC BY 2.0, and By Rafael Gorski – originally posted to Flickr as Cultura pura – Bolivia – 2004, CC BY 2.0,

Tiwanaku, Gate of the Sun and Detail (photo By Bgabel – Own work (Original text: self-made), Public Domain, and By JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Canals were built to channel water to a non-utilitarian moat around the sacred precinct. The city core was surrounded by water, and conceived of as an island, the mythic site of world creation and human emergence. Elite lived within the sacred precinct. Palaces were inside this precinct as were temples, including the large tiered platform mound called the Akapana, which mimicked the sacred mountain. The major structures were aligned to the cardinal points, and expressed the intersection of the celestial and subterranean worlds, which was expressed by the Akapana. The city was also divided into quadrants. There was also a sunken courtyard called the Kalasasaya. Huge stone blocks were shaped and polished for the foundations of the mud-brick buildings as well as for facing the dirt and rubble mounds, and creating processional stairways and gateways. These gateways framed symbolic vistas, and marked both the ruler’s processional path and the sun’s celestial east-west path. The Sun Gate was moved by the rulers from its original location to the Kalasasaya platform near the end of the Middle Horizon from its probable original location at the Puma Punku, which transformed it into a large free-standing sculpture. This gate appears to be post-and-lintel, but is carved from a single block of 9’ tall stone. The lintel is decorated with a version of the Staff God, whose renewal gave the rulers history and legitimacy. This could be a version of the Inca creator god, Viracocha, or a return to the Chavín Staff God. He is in high relief with hierarchic scale, central placement, and a frontal pose, and stands on a tiered platform or mountain with animals coming from the center. He holds 2 spears in one hand, and an atlatl in the other. His attendants are in low relief and profile poses, which gives a clarity of political propaganda, and may be a representation of a deified ruler emulating the Chavín god.

This city became the center of the earth to the Inca, the place where Viracocha shaped the first people out of clay and painted them so each would have identity. Lake Titicaca is the sacred locus of many creation myths. Cosmological time was believed to be cyclical, regenerative, and re-created by human agency. The dominant social reality was cyclical, and turned on the seasonal rhythms of rural life, which was removed from the cosmopolitan world of the elite. Cities were few and special, and were centers of pilgrimage as well as sites of commercial enterprise. They were the focal points of the expressed social order. The practice of taking heads in battle was central symbolic element in warfare and ritual sacrifice. There were specialized workshops that produced both utilitarian and ceremonial pottery. There were also 3 main classes, the warrior-elite that ruled, the class of artisans, and the commoner class of farmers, herders and fishers. The textile emphasis on camelids also presented the state as human order mediating chaos, with camelid herding and statecraft both based on diversification of pursuits in order to mitigate the effects of adverse environmental conditions. The techniques of textile production included tapestry, knotting pile, patchwork, weft wrapping, embroidery, and warp patterning. Quipus here are the earliest known fiber recording devices. They codified oral information through color pattern, and were portable, lightweight, and unbreakable. Pastorialism constitutes an unstable equilibrium, and the fiber has a great premium. The camelids depicted in many media show the primary mediator between nature and the state.


Rectangular Palace at Chan Chan (photoBy Håkan Svensson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Chimú, Funerary Mask and Ear Flares, 12th-15th century (photo By Dorieo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Ed Uthman –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Late Intermediate (1000-1438) saw the rise of the Chimú in the northern coastal desert. Their capital city was Chan Chan, and they were a militaristic culture with an empire that was eventually absorbed by the Inca.   They mined gold from the mountains, and collected it into the rivers. They then shaped it into ingots, and cold-hammered it into sheets, which were then pounded over wooden forms. These pieces were often painted as well as inlaid with stones, joined by wires or rivets or soldered. The site of Chan Chan is characterized by large adobe palace-structures for the elite that housed their burials and audience halls, as well as treasure rooms.

Inca, Tunic of the Sapa Inca and Military tunic, 1470-1532 (photo Public Domain, and By Image:, Public Domain,

The Late Horizon (1438-1533) sees the rise of the Inca, one of the largest empires in world history amassed in less than 1 century. The Inca were the last independent pre-Hispanic civilization. They defined themselves in terms of a sacred landscape and the people in it. The Sapa Inca was the divine king, the son of the Sun God, Inti, who ruled by divine right, and lived in Cuzco, the navel of the world located at the center of the Land of 4 Quarters, Tawantinsuya. The empire was founded by conquest and maintained by statecraft. It was built with taxes paid in the form of goods, food, and the mita, or the labor tax that required all to work on government building programs. People were often relocated over huge distances to create colonies of workers. Sumptuary laws marked social divisions in the kinds of objects people could own or use.  The Inca kept quipus, which were corded knots that formed the writing system. Much of the architecture was designed to advance the needs of the state, and included roads and bridges. It was an architecture of power. Natural outcroppings were venerated as huacas, or a place or object in which sacred power was immanent. No mortar was used in sacred or official buildings, and each stone was shaped to fit the contours of those around it, called refined functionalism, or the aesthetic based on the principals of elemental form, pristine surface, and imposing scale. The standards of Incan art were imposed on all reaches of the empire. History was remembered as deeds commissioned or carried out by kings, they did not use dates. The Inca followed a complex religion with a pantheon headed by the sun that had a contractual relationship with humans which necessitated offerings to the spirit world.

Inca, Corcancha and Sacsahuamán, Cuzco (photo By Jofrigerio – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Peter van der Sluijs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Inca, Machu Picchu (photo By Pastor3571 – Own work, CC BY 4.0, and By C T Johansson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pachacuti laid out Cuzco in the form of a puma, which symbolized the Inca dynasty. The feline motif was featured in thrones and ritual offerings, and symbolized the bond between the ruler and the land. Cuzco was a sacred artifact and an enclosure of power. Machu Picchu was a royal retreat built by the first emperor, Pachacuti, several thousand feet above sea level on a narrow ridge in the cloud forest. Incan architecture showed a sympathetic adaptation of human needs to environmental constraints. The act of creating architecture was a metaphor for affirming control, and also memorialized events or religious or historical significance. The use of architecture acknowledged the cultural heritage of the past, redirected the political and religious loyalties, and commemorated sacred space. The city of Machu Picchu, which was the winter palace of the Sapa Inca, was surrounded by concentric rings of terraces that were used for agriculture and helped support the weight of the city.

The Spanish conquered the Inca empire in 1533. The Inca Guaman Poma sent an illustrated letter to King Charles I of Spain in an effort to explain Incan beliefs and culture, and to contrast it with that of the Spanish.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s