The Chavín culture, flourishing from the 10th century 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 main Chavín ceremonial site, the magnificent Chavín de Huántar, is about 10,000 feet above sea level in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Its temple architecture, begun in about 900 BC is 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.
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.
Cuzco and the Incas: 15th century AD
In the early 15th century the town of Cuzco is a small place, the headquarters of one of many competing tribes within the region which was once ruled from Tiwanaku. But in about 1438 a younger son of the ruler defeats the neighbouring Chanca people, usurps power, gives himself the resounding title Pachacuti (‘transformer of the earth’) and begins an astonishing process of military expansion. The policy is continued by his son, Topa Inca (also sometimes called Tupac Inca).
By the end of two long reigns (about fifty-five years in all) the Cuzco dynasty, known as the Incas, are in loose control of an empire stretching from Quito in modern Ecuador to the Maule river in Chile – a distance of nearly 2500 miles.
The Inca state: AD 1428 – 1532
The structure of Inca society resembles a blueprint for a utopia, drawn up by a political theorist concerned for the physical well-being of the citizens but with no interest in the higher ideals of liberty or equality. Since most human beings share this sense of priorities, the people living under Inca rule seem to have been tolerably content.
Land is allotted by the state to peasant families, to till for their own needs. In return the state levies tax in the form of labour. Male heads of households take their turn working in fields reserved for the Inca administration, building roads and bridges, or serving in the army.
Such a system of serf labour has been commonplace in many societies. Under the Incas it appears not to be done in an atmosphere of coercion. Indeed there is evidence that work is frequently accompanied by much festivity. Chicha, a beer made from maize, plays a major part in life.
Another Inca system familiar elsewhere is that of the mitmakuna. These are entire communities of families, moved often hundreds of miles to new regions where they will form a secure settlement, on Inca principles, in a region which might otherwise be unruly. This is similar to ancient Roman colonies.
More unusual are two groups known as mamakuna and yanakuna. These are women and men selected early in their lives to serve the state.
The mamakuna, more numerous than their male counterparts, live in segregated communities. The most beautiful among them may find a place in the emperor’s harem; others may be given away by the state in dynastic marriages. But their main functions are religious and economic. They are priestesses in the state cult of the sun; they are the spinners and weavers of the superb Inca textiles for which the society is famous; and they seem also to have been largely responsible for the brewing of the maize beer known as chicha.
The male yanakuna serve the Inca rulers and other high members of the society in various ways, and unlike the mamakuna they seem to have been free to marry. Their main task is caring for the Inca’s herds of animals. This spreads the yanakuna throughout Inca society, for most llamas belong to the state – and the llama, larger than the related alpaca, is the only beast of burden in Peru.
With the yanakuna on the roads and in the market places, and the mamakuna in temples and workshops in the cities, these lifetime servants of the state are like an elementary civil service. Their presence is as much a sign of Inca control in a region as the characteristic Inca architecture.