Beyond the sculpted stone walls of Machu Picchu, the astounding earthen temples of the Moche culture and the sacred pyramids of Caral, Peru's legacy is a long history of developing civilizations that began on the frigid high Andean plateaus more than ten millennia ago.
The people who built the lost city of the Incas; the same ones who designed the most intricate roads and designed the most incredible hydraulic and agricultural engineering works, started out from cold caves at an altitude of more than four thousand meters. These hunter-gathers were the first inhabitants of our country and have left countless traces of their way of life at sites such as Pikimachay (Ayacucho), Lauricocha (Huánuco) and Toquepala (Tacna), where researchers have unraveled the mystery of the birth of Peruvian civilization.
These first inhabitants left their caves and shelters around seven thousand years ago to descend to the western Pacific valleys, and from there crossed the coastal hills and finally reached the sea. The llama and deer hunters quickly became fishermen and shellfish collectors and then began domesticating plants in the warm valleys that cut through the desert. Men such as the man from Nanchoc bear witness to this dramatic juncture for Peruvians, when they began to cultivate their first crops such as lima beans, corn, potatoes and cotton, allowing them to leave their nomadic life behind and settle in their first hamlets.
a. Ancient civilizations
Caral, now considered the oldest civilization in America, appeared over more than five thousand years ago in the Supe River Valley, north of the city of Lima. A contemporary of Egypt and Mesopotamia, this coastal dominion completely changed the course of Peru's history more than a decade ago and solidified our country as one of the world's most important cultural hubs, along with Mesoamerica, and the basins of the Nile, Euphrates and Indus.
Caral is the culmination of an early cultural process called the Initial Period, whose main features are the absence of pottery (Preceramic) and the construction of tiered adobe temples, circular town squares and small villages around sacred and government centers. Notable archaeological sites such as Sechín, on the Áncash coast, and the Temple of the Crossed Hands of Kotosh, in Huánuco, belong to this period.
About a thousand years later, Chavín emerged in the north-central Andes, in the state of Áncash. This new government spread its culture throughout a large portion of the country, as can be seen in the "Chavinoid" images and symbols at sites as far away as the southern coast and the Altiplano. Its main religious center was located in the Waqueqsa river valley, in the beautiful region of Conchucos, and is one of the country's greatest archaeological discoveries. Before Caral was discovered, Chavín was believed to be the first great Peruvian civilization.
Around 700 B.C., another fascinating culture appeared on the coast, the first great desert people: the Paracas, who were adept weavers – their great tapestries of intricate designs are known around the world. They are known for their burial methods and for having performed successful skull operations, as is demonstrated by evidence discovered by Julio C. Tello in the 1940s.
During the first centuries AD, and following the dominance of Chavín, various dominions appeared throughout the territory, including the Mochica, whose rule encompassed almost the entire northern coast of Peru. With its center in the Moche valley, at La Libertad, these people are known for their ceramic figurines, their delicate goldsmithing and their efficient use of water resources that allowed them to significantly expand their agricultural frontier and support a large population.
What has been called the first regional empire appeared after this initial regional development; that of the Wari, around 550 AD. As a continuation of the Tiahuanaco culture, forged on the Peruvian and Bolivian Altiplano, the Wari ruled an extensive territory and established what would later become Tahuantinsuyo. It was this people that began tracing the great Pre-Hispanic roads and laying the foundations of the social and territorial governance that the Incas of Cusco would then inherit.
The disappearance of the Wari, around 1200 AD, saw the beginning of the Late Intermediate period, a second wave of regional developments where several cultures, such as Ichma, holders of the powerful oracle of Pachacamac, stand out; the Chincha, great merchants of the sea who later became 'trading partners' of the Incas; and especially the Chimú, the great lords of the north, who took the place of the Mochica and the Lambayeque. Like their predecessors, the Chimú are noted for their exquisite pottery and complex irrigation systems. They were the ones who built the immense city of Chan Chan, the largest adobe construction in the world.
This was also the era of the Chachopyas, the 'men of the clouds,' lords of the lush cloud forests of Amazonas, where they built the most incredible cities and mausoleums, carved into the steepest cliff faces.
As these cultures approached their zenith, a dominion of Quechua origin began to take shape in the valley of the Vilcanota River, in Cusco. They gained land using alliances and systems of reciprocity, in addition to force. After defeating the Chancas of Apurímac and Ayacucho, the Incas – as history tells it – built the largest empire in America. It covered the territory of six modern-day countries and united peoples from the most dissimilar backgrounds under one flag, thanks to strict social control and an efficient system of governance.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries the Incas created what no one had ever imagined before: a great state connected by an efficient road network – the Qhapac Ñan – which summarized millennia of wisdom. Rather than devastating the cultures they conquered, the Incas assimilated the ways of life of their subjects and used the best aspects of each society to build their amazing culture.