Thursday, 8 March 2012

Before the Incas

Chimu Ear Flares
I have previously written about certain early civilisations, such as Sumer or Egypt, mainly because I find them interesting but partly because knowledge of them is useful in understanding later historical developments. I will now spend some time looking at some civilisations in South America. The great watershed event in South American history is the arrival of European culture in the 1500’s and the destruction associated with this, combined with degradable materials comprising the settlements of many existing civilisations mean that our knowledge of ancient societies in the region is fragmentary and the remains of entire civilisations may lie buried for future generations to find. I will focus mainly on the region of the northern Andes (Peru, Bolivia etc.) and sketch the civilisations in broad strokes. I apologise in advance to enthusiasts of the subject if I make occasional generalisations or errors and the omissions due to space constraints.

Pyramid at Caral
The first notable South American urban society is the Norte Chico culture in northern Peru, dating from around 3000 BC to 1700 BC. Most early civilisations begin in river valleys, where pottery and irrigation allow increased populations that morph into urban areas. Despite impressive irrigation undertaken, the people of this culture did not use pottery. They did however build stepped pyramids and create impressive textiles. Their main city, Caral (an alternative name for the culture) was unfortified and may have been primarily a ceremonial centre. Lacking ceramics, their main artistic outlet was in textiles but if archaeologists are correct, the Norte Chico civilisation may have made a striking leap forward in this area by (pardon the atrocious pun) turning textiles to text.

The threads shown in the picture are known as “quipu”. The Incas used them until the 1500’s to record numerical data but many scholars believe that the intricate systems of knots do not merely carry numbers but can denote linguistic content as well. If so, these knotted strings were in fact a writing system. Similar remains were found in the Norte Chico settlements, which would imply that this system of writing is truly ancient. It should be noted however that not all scholars are convinced that the quipu are a true writing system and the identification of them at Norte Chico sites is not entirely proved.

Interior of tunnel at Chavin de Huantar
Around 1800 BC the Norte Chico culture went into decline and the unfortified cities were abandoned. The next notable culture arose nearly a thousand years later in central Peru. This culture was referred to as the Chavin. Again, the cities are unfortified and evidence of warfare is very scarce. The culture centred on a site known as Chavin de Huantar near Lima, which contained impressive architecture and was worked upon and improved for hundreds of years. It is very speculative exactly what their religion comprised of but it is almost certain that Chavin de Huantar was a place that held religious significance for the culture and the site held labyrinthine tunnels and intricate stele. Chavin artwork is found throughout the region but the fact that only one major centre of the culture has been found and the fact that this centre, Chavin de Huantar appears to be more ceremonial than urban, might suggest that the Chavin culture was more akin to a religious phenomena than an empire or state in the traditional sense.
Moche Pottery
Around 100 AD, in Northern Peru, the Moche culture rose to prominence. While the Moche do not appear to have been a single state but rather a set of highly organised states that existed in parallel. They were skilled metalworkers and built massive pyramidal monuments. One of these monuments was so large and contained so many tombs with grave goods that the Spanish later diverted a river to aid in mining it mining it for gold. This obviously caused (severe) damage to the structure, but prior to its destruction this pyramid (Huaca del Sol) was probably the largest building in Pre-Columbian America. The Moche flourished until around the year 500AD when their society went into decline.

Pyramid of the Sun in the background. Note trees as scale
Moche Warrior

The reasons for this decline are disputed. One popular theory suggests that there was a change in the climate and that the culture was battered by storms for decades before suffering decades of drought. If this was the case it should be noted that this did not destroy the culture. There are Moche settlements dated to 800 AD, (300 years after the extreme climate event). However, the later settlements display major fortifications and the excavated walls have revealed caches of sling stones (the bow was not used by the Moche). A foreign invasion has been suggested but another plausible scenario suggests that the culture survived the climate event but that the city-states then turned against each other in an increasingly desperate competition for resources before the urban populations eventually abandoned the cities to move towards more fertile lands. Another scenario postulates that the city-states were temporarily abandoned but that the population simply shifted to different urban centres around 800 AD and that later cultures in the area should be viewed as extensions of the original Moche culture.

Pyramid at Cahuachi
At the same time as the Moche were flourishing in Northern Peru, an enigmatic culture existed along Peru’s southern coast. These people are referred to as the Nazca and while they left behind few physical remains, the remains in question are quite startling. The region is quite arid and agriculture is difficult to this day, however, the farmers of the region are able to water their crops by using underground aqueducts that have been there for an unspecified period of time. The identity of the builders is disputed and some maintain that these were built by early Spanish settlers. They could possibly have been built by an altogether unknown civilisation but the most likely candidates are the Nazca. The primary Nazca ceremonial centre was a site now known as Cahuachi, where the relatively well preserved (and partially reconstructed) remains of a pyramid stand.

Nazca Lines
More famously, they also constructed the Nazca lines. These are lines that stretch across the desert, seemingly insignificant when viewed from the plains on which they lie, but forming coherent shapes when viewed from local hills or the air. As the Nazca left no direct records (like all Pre-Incan Peruvian cultures) no one really knows what these lines are for (suggestions range from maps of the aqueducts to alien landing strips) but they do make for interesting viewing. The picture shown reveals (on close examination as it is a poor quality picture) a thick straight line and a stylised picture of a bird.

The Nazca were contemporary with the Moche and seem to have suffered the same fate, whether from climate change or invasion, as their culture fades out around 800AD. However, these cultures were succeeded by empires. The previously mentioned cultures may have been centrally organised but the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures were empires. The Wari, also known as the Huari, were a culture based in central and northern Peru, who controlled an extensive empire bound together by a corvee (taxes were paid in communal labour at the behest of the rulers) style tribute system and an intricate system of road.

Reconstructed Central Plaza in Tiwanaku
Meanwhile, in Southern Peru, a culture referred to as Tiwanaku (also known as Tiahuanaco) arose near Lake Titicaca. These were contemporary with the Wari and shared cultural links and trade ties but were almost definitely separate. The remains of the city at Tiwanaku show the skill of the architects and stonemasons who planned an executed the design. Certain people who were interested in the site believed that possible astronomical alignments of the buildings proved that the city of Tiwanaku was over 9,000 years old (as the alignments of stars shift slightly over time this is actually a semi-valid method of dating). This would have made Tiwanaku the oldest city on earth but most archaeologists are convinced that these calculations were in error and the evidence suggests that the Wari and Tiwanaku states existed roughly between 600-1100AD.

Adobe remains of Chan Chan
Decorated Wall in Chan Chan

The Chimu culture arose roughly around 900AD in the area that had been occupied by the Moche and there are many cultural similarities between the two. The Chimu left behind many artefacts and their immense adobe capital of Chan Chan still partially exists today. The Chimu were an organised state based around a narrow coastal strip. They worshipped the moon and their intensive agriculture supported a large population that was able to wage war effectively. Around the year 1300AD the Chimu state expanded rapidly until it controlled most of north and central Peru. However, their state was matched by a rising state to the south and around the year 1470AD the ruler of the Incan Empire, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, marched into Chan Chan and put an end to the Chimu empire and civilisation. Tupac Inca Yupanqui was the grandfather of the last Inca, Atahualpa and also the namesake of Tupac Amaru, whom Tupac Shakur was named after (a little bit of trivia for you there).

Chimu Llama Vase
This has been a long post but it has covered, albeit briefly, a period of four thousand four hundred years and has hopefully given a glimpse into some of the civilisations that thrived before the famous Incas and the eventual Spanish conquest.


  1. I would propose that those before the Inca's.. from the period of 600 BC to about 400 AD.. were those called the Nephites and Lamanites. Mixed with another group of people called the Mulekites. And before them.. in the Northern regions of Peru and Equador.. the Jaredites.

  2. Check and mate MrNirom! Well played sir!