From 3000 BC

Civilizations before 200 BC

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 coast in northern 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 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 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 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 about900. 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 Mochica. 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 Chavínarrative_link de huántar.

From 1000 AD

Textiles of the Andes: AD 1000-1500

The textiles of ancient Peru are extraordinary not only for their brilliance of technique, colour and design but also because this is a tradition which develops in isolation. Unlike Asia, with its mingling of people through migration, trade and conquest, there are no outside influences to stimulate the weavers and dyers of south America.

They develop in isolation their own high technical standards and their own striking designs. The strong geometrical patterns of these fabrics now seem characteristic of many native American textiles, but these Andean weavers are the trail-blazers, the pioneers.

Andean rulers and their families are sometimes wrapped for burial in as many as sixty layers of cloth. Most of the known examples of fabric from the centuries before the arrival of the Europeans have been recovered from graves in the period from1000 to 1500. But some Nazca pieces have survived from the previous millennium. And a few fragments of woven cotton, a plant indigenous in the region, have been dated to about 4000 years ago.

Woollen garments in the Andes have an equally long history. By about 300 BC women are spinning yarn from the wool of the three local members of the camel family - the domesticated Llama and alpaca, and the wild vicuña.

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.

Even allowing for the exaggerations of oral history transmitted within a ruling dynasty, this is a remarkable achievement. Pachacuti and Topa Inca, though hardly household names, are a double generation of conquerors comparable to Philip of macedon and his son Alexander.

The Inca expansion also shares some features with Genghis khan's programme of conquest. A few brutal military victories suffice to terrify other petty rulers into cooperation, and the success of the Incas derives partly from excellent roads and communications.

Inca roads: 15th century AD

The Inca roads, the arteries of an empire, amount in all to more than 14,000 miles. They are not paved, in the way of Roman roads, nor are they even much flattened - for this empire contains no wheeled vehicle nor any Horses.

The Incas rule over massively varied terrain, made up of large areas of jungle, desert and rugged highlands. Their roads are in effect paths, kept clear in these difficult conditions. Suspension bridges span small ravines, enabling runners to hurry unimpeded with a message - or caravans of llamas to make slower but steady progress with bales of raw materials and precious fabrics.

As in the ancient Persian empire and many others, runners are housed at short distances along the routes to provide a rapid relay service. But unlike similar routes in Asian empires, these roads transmit only verbal messages. The Incas have no writing. Their empire is administered like a vast game of Chinese whispers. No doubt most communication gets through in accurate form. But then perhaps long-distance messages in all early empires tend to be simple - instructions to fight, to return to base, to send stated amounts of men or materials, with sometimes news of a king's death or the identity of his successor.

Instead of writing, the local medium for recording simple information is an invention of the Andean civilizations - the quipu.

The quipu: 7th - 16th century AD

The quipu (meaning 'knot') is a recording device used in Andean civilizations at least as far back as Wari in the 7th century, but it is associated in particular with the administration of the Inca empire. It consists of a length of rope from which numerous other threads are suspended, some of them with their own subsidiary offshoots. The length of each thread, its colour and the position of any knots in it can acquire specific meanings.

At its simplest this is an easy way of recording quantities of different goods. If a length or colour of thread is an agreed symbol for a given commodity, the knots (registering units, tens or hundreds) will give a quick account of the total.

The quipu can also cope with more abstract themes. If threads or knots are allocated the role of days and months, a time scale is easily recorded. In this way simple historical records can be kept, such as the length of a king's reign since his accession.

What a quipu cannot do is substitute for writing. It can record how long a king has reigned but not what his name was. It may provide a messenger with a mnemonic, but it is the messenger who must remember the message. Without writing, the historical records of the quipu must be supplemented by witnesses from the past - as is touchingly admitted by a Peruvian Indian, attempting to write a 'proper history' of his people for the Spanish king.

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 gives the yanakuna a mobility and a network of links 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.

Inca architecture: 15th - 16th century AD

The Incas share with another much earlier civilization, that of Mycenaean Greece, a habit of building with massive blocks of masonry. But the precision of the Peruvian masons puts all others to shame. In their capital at Cuzco, or in subject cities where they wish to emphasize their presence, the Incas leave their trade mark in great slabs of stone, often of eccentric shape, fitting together with an uncanny and beautiful precision.

The modern city of Cuzco has grown upon and around its Inca origins. But Inca masonry can still be seen, underpropping churches or flanking streets, as a reminder of the great builders of the 15th century.

To the north of Cuzco, on the open hillside, are the three vast polygonal ramparts of Saqsawaman - a structure once believed to be an Inca fortress, but more probably a temple to the sun and an arena for state rituals.

Even more mysterious, in the jungle at the far end of the Urubamba valley, is the long-lost city of Machu Picchu. Its site is as dramatic as the story of its rediscovery (see discovery of Machu Picchu). High on an inaccessible peak in the jungle, the Inca masons somehow contrive to place their vast dressed stones, even in this remote spot, with wonderful exactitude.

Inca sun rituals: 15th - 16th century AD

Like some of the Roman emperors, the Incas identify themselves with the sun. And like the Japanese royal house, they even persuade their people that they are the Living descendants of the monarch of the heavens.

The most sacred idol in the Inca pantheon is a great golden disc representing the sun. It is known as Punchao, which means daylight or dawn. Great religious ceremonies, sometimes lasting several days, are based upon the pattern of dawn and dusk, day and night. The Inca, as the sun's representative on earth, presides over the rituals.

One of the most important festivals in the Inca year is the eight-day feast which celebrates the harvesting of the maize crop. Each day a ritual chanting begins with the rising of the sun, grows to a crescendo at noon, and diminishes to silence again by dusk. Burnt offerings of llamas and libations of maize beer are made to the sun god. The Inca and his court are in their most splendid robes, encrusted in gold and silver. The effigies of the Inca's ancestors are also present - with retinues of female attendants.

One of the last enactments of this colourful festival, so much more gentle than the contemporary Aztec sun rituals, is witnessed and described in 1535 by a young Spanish priest.

A glimpse of Inca treasure: AD 1527-1532

Two small Spanish ships, commanded by Bartolomé Ruiz, sail southwards in the Pacific in 1527 towards Peru. Their journey brings them across the equator (they are the first Europeans to cross the line in this ocean). The Spaniards are surprised to come across an ocean-going raft, made of balsa wood and fitted with cotton sails, with a crew of twenty.

When they seize the raft, its rich contents also astonish them (the ornaments and textiles are described later in glowing terms to the Spanish king). The people who sent out this trading vessel are clearly worth meeting. Ruiz takes the precaution of keeping three of the crew to be trained as interpreters.

This chance encounter is the first contact between Europeans and the fabulously wealthy empire of the Incas. And the glimpse of Inca treasure can only inflame Spanish greed.

The leader of the expedition (not aboard on the reconnaissance by Ruiz) is Francisco Pizarro. The winter of 1527 is spent on a swampy uninhabited island. The conditions are so appalling that by the spring Pizarro is left with only thirteen companions. They sail on southwards. At Tumbes they reach their first Inca city. Two of Pizarro's men go ashore. Their reports confirm that this is indeed a rich and civilized society.

It takes Pizarro eighteen months, mainly spent at the royal court in Spain, to drum up sufficient support for a voyage of conquest. The great Cortes happens to be at the Spanish court at the same time. He offers personal encouragement, and the example of his own astonishing achievement in Mexico inspires ambitious young Spaniards to join the new cause.

Ennobled, and granted the status of governor of a notional Spanish province along the Peruvian coast, Pizarro leaves Spain with a small fleet in January 1530. At the end of the year, in December, his expedition sails south from Panama.

Unlike the speedy advance of Cortes into Mexico in 1519, Pizarro's progress south is slow. For some reason he chooses to march his men along much of the difficult coast of Ecuador, causing great hardship and delay. Nearly two years have passed by the time he establishes a small Spanish settlement, which he calls San Miguel, near Piura in the coastal plain of northern Peru.

From here, at last, in September 1532, he marches out to attack the vast empire of the Incas. His army by now consists of 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers.

Unlike the speedy advance of Cortes into Mexico in 1519, Pizarro's progress south is slow through the tropical terrain of Ecuador. Nearly two years have passed by the time he establishes a small Spanish settlement, which he calls San Miguel, near Piura in the coastal plain of northern Peru.

From here at last, in September 1532, he marches out to attack the vast empire of the Incas. His army by now consists of 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers. Yet within ten months, in one of history's most dramatic and gruesome stories, Pizarro and his small band of adventurers massacre the Inca court, seize untold wealth in gold, and finally murder Cortes to rule in his place.

A brutal end: AD 1521-1533

The destruction by the Spaniards of the great Inca empire in Peru, twelve years after the similar fate of the Aztecs, brings to an effective end nearly three millennia of indigenous civilization in America - though the Maya, hard to suppress in the Yucatan jungle, preserve for a while their own ways.

The Spanish destroy the precious artefacts of these cultures with an unprecedented thoroughness - mainly in their lust for gold and silver, but sometimes (as with Mayan manuscripts) as an ideological assault on paganism. The result is that there is relatively little to show now for these rich cultures and their highly skilled crafts.
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