The Chavín culture, dating from around 900 BC, has long been considered the first civilization of south America. But in recent decades archaeologists have revealed far earlier centralized societies in the Norte Chico region of Peru, along the Supe river. Aspero was the first of many such sites to be discovered, and Caral is the largest. Sophisticated architecture (pyramids and raised platforms) suggests complex societies, and carbon-14 dating reveals that they were in existence by around 3000 BC – contemporary with the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The much later Chavín de Huántar, a ceremonial site 10,000 feet above sea level in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, has temple architecture characterized by huge raised platforms. They are formed from massive blocks of dressed stone, in the beginning of a long Peruvian tradition. The Chavín culture subsequently spreads through much of the Andean region. One of its characteristics is stone sculpture of fantastic beasts, of which serpents, birds and jaguars often provide the component details.
Mochica and Nazca: 200 BC – AD 600
After the decline of Chavín de Huántar, the Andean region develops several more localized cultures. Of these the two most distinctive are the Mochica in the north and the Nazca to the south.
The Mochica, centred upon Moche on the north coast of Peru, are known in particular for brilliantly realistic pottery sculpture – usually depictions of human heads (possibly even portraits), functioning as jugs with stirrup-shaped spouts emerging from the top. The Mochica are also ambitious builders. The so-called Temple of the Sun at Moche is a stepped pyramid with a height of 41 metres. It is constructed entirely of unfired bricks, dried in the sun.
Contemporary with the Mochica, but inhabiting a desert region along the southern coast of Peru, are the Nazca. They are noted for their brightly coloured pottery and for sophisticated textiles, with vivid embroidery.
The most remarkable aspect of their culture is the so-called Nazca Lines. These are drawings executed on a massive scale on the coastal plane. Sometimes purely geometrical, sometimes formal versions of bird or animal shapes, the images are achieved by removing the brown surface of the plain to reveal lighter soil beneath. The purpose of these vast drawings (best viewed in a way the Nazca never saw them, from the air) remains unknown.
Tiwanaku and Wari: AD 400-1000
In about the 5th century AD the centre of civilization in the Andean region shifts from the coastal plain to the highlands. The most impressive of the highland cities is Tiwanaku (also spelt Tiahuanaco), near Lake Titicaca in what is now Bolivia. It is well established by about AD 400, and begins to dominate large areas of the surrounding territory from about 550.
Shortly after this date a rival empire develops in the highlands further to the north, around the city of Wari. Of the two, Wari has a shorter period of prosperity. It declines by about 800, whereas Tiwanaku remains an important local power until early in the 11th century.
Tiwanaku, standing about 12,500 feet above sea level, probably has a population of between 20,000 and 40,000. Its massive stone architecture and monumental sculpture is an amazing achievement in this high and remote region. Vast human figures carved from single blocks of stone are Tiwanaku’s most distinctive art form (the largest of them, the 24-foot-high Bennett Monolith, stands now in a park in La Paz).
The stone for some of these great monuments is quarried at Copacabana and brought across Lake Titicaca on reed boats, before being hauled overland to the city.
Wari has been less extensively studied than Tiwanaku, but the ruins suggest that at its peak – some time between about AD 600 and 800 – the city may have covered as much as 250 acres. It also seems to have exported its culture (identified by styles of architecture and pottery) over a wide region, suggesting a far-flung empire probably more commercial than military in kind.
In keeping with a commercial interest, the Wari are precursors of the Incas in their use of the quipu.
Sican and Chimú: AD 800 – 1470
After the heyday of the first two highland empires of the Andes, Tiwanaku and Wari, the coastal regions recover the leading role in the region. Descendants of the Mochica develop a culture known as Sican, in the Lambayeque area of northern Peru.
Their main city is Batán Grande, a pilgrimage centre with several monumental pyramids, which has yielded numerous golden tomb treasures in recent years to the archaeologists (and previously to grave robbers). The site seems to have been abandoned in the 12th century after a great flood.
During the Sican period a greater and more extensive culture is evolving a little way down the coast, again among descendants of the Mochica inhabitants of these regions. Known as the Chimú, these people develop a great city from about AD 900. They call it Chan Chan.
Chan Chan is the largest of the ruined cities of the Andean civilizations. Its walls enclose an area of about eight square miles, within which there are ten or more huge rectangular palace compounds – known as ciudadelas.
The ciudadelas are almost like self-contained townships, with their own public buildings, water supply and even burial arrangements in addition to accomodation for the residents – probably the members and followers of one powerful family in each ciudadela.
Elsewhere in the city are numerous signs of production and trade. The two main Andean crafts are extensively practised here, metal being worked by men while the women are in charge of the spinning and weaving of cloth. Caravanserais in the city, capable of housing several hundred people, cater for the caravans of llamas arriving with wool and metal ores for sale and exchange.
The prosperity of Chan Chan within its own immediate region is based on elaborate systems of irrigation in the coastal plain, but it also has a large commercial empire. In the 13th and 14th century the influence of the Chimú extends over the entire length of modern Peru, from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south.
But this is the last coastal civilization of the south American Indians, in a tradition going back more than 2000 years to Chavín de Huántar. Between 1465 and 1470 the Chimú are overwhelmed by a highly organized people from the Andean highlands. They become incorporated in the empire of the Incas.