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Pre-Colombian History
in South America


These few notes aim to provide some historical background to better understand the events that have shaped the people I have met in the countries I visited in South America.

According to conventional wisdom, South America has been inhabited for about 20,000 years by hunters and gatherers who began developing agriculture around 4000 BC Christ using the slash and burn technique still used today by some isolated tribes of Amazonia. The first permanent agricultural settlements appeared about 3 500 BC in areas where the quasi nomadic slash and burn technique was not applicable such as the coastal river valleys that required irrigation to control the seasonal runoff from the Andes and the highlands where it was necessary to build terraces to create farmable land.

These new labour intensive agricultural techniques required a consensus on how the collective efforts of each community should be spent and that required stable structures based on a common set of values and beliefs. Each community invented their own gods which were generally concerned with keeping a calendar of the seasons and with providing fertility to the land and the people. Little is known of these early religions that developed independently during 1000 years in many places on the coast ( Valdivia , Huaca Prieta, Salinas de Chao, Aspero, Piedra Parada, El Paraiso), and in the highlands (Kotosh, Shillacoto, Wairai-jirca, Huaricoto, La Galgada, Piruru).

Andean history is complex for many societies developed in the northern and southern parts of the coast and of the highlands. The table below attempts to locate the more important ones in time and space.


Chavín Horizon (1400 - 200 BC)
Virú (300 BC),
Moche (100 - 700 AD)
Nazca (200 - 800 AD)
Cajamarca (500 AD),
Recuay (200 BC - 600 AD)
Pukara (200 BC - 200 AD),
Tiahuanaco (200 -600 AD)
Huari Hegemony (600 - 1000 AD)
Chimú (1300 - 1460 AD)
Chancay (1100 - 1450)
Ica-Chincha (100 - 1450)
Pachacamac (600 - 1000 AD)
Inca Empire (1450 - 1532 AD)

Chavín horizon (1400 - 400 BC)

Around 1400 BC one of the highland centers, located at 3200 metres on a mountain crossroad (now called Chavín de Huántar), controlled the trade routes west to the Pacific through two passes in the cordillera Blanca and the trade route east to Amazonia down the Mosna river. This strategic position contributed to its prosperity and allowed it to develop communications with distant places while it was developing the specific cultural style by which we can now identify the maximum extent its influence.

By 900 BC, the Chavín cult of the Jaguar and cultural influence had become accepted over most of what is today Peru as indicated by the widespread presence of Chavín style "U" shaped temples and of the Chavín style in sculpture, pottery and textiles.

The Chavín temple consists of rubble filled stone platforms faced by masonry walls and honeycombed with galleries running parallel to the walls at different levels, well ventilated and drained by stone lined shafts. The oldest part of the temple is a U-shaped structure embracing a sunken ceremonial court facing east. The central section contains a cruciform gallery, at the crossing of which stands a remarkable shaft of white granite, some 15 feet high, carved in bas-relief to represent a standing human figure with a feline face with a pair of great fangs in the upper jaw. This figure, which has been called El Lanzón, the Great Image, and the Smiling God, appears to have been the chief object of worship.The southern arm of the temple was widened to form the new temple into which the original galleries were prolonged and in which was found a stone (Raimondi), showing the Staff God, a standing semi-human figure having claws, a feline face with crossed fangs, and a staff in each hand (the staff was a symbol of authority). Outside the new temple is a square sunken courtyard in which was found an obelisk (Tello), carved in bas-relief to represent a caiman and covered with symbolic carvings, such as bands of teeth and animal heads. This Caiman is also considered to have been an object of worship like the Smiling God and the Staff God.

Chavín pottery is best known from the decorated types found in the galleries in the temple at Chavín and in graves on the northern coast, where it is called Cupisnique. Strong influences from Chavín are evident in the Paracas style of pottery and textiles found in the Ica Valley on the south Peruvian coast. (The Paracas culture began about 900 BC, and lasted until about 200 BC.). The finest stone sculpture in the Central Andean Area is found at Chavín de Huántar or at Chavín-related sites such as Cerro Blanco in the Nepeña valley and Cerro Sechin in the Casma valley. The Chavín also developed metalworking and they excelled at making hammered gold body ornaments, cut-out decorative plaques that were attached to garments and high cylindrical crowns with mythological reliefs, which were worn by the Chavín nobility.

The Chavín religious and cultural influence had unified Peru by peaceful means but it led to the development of privileged classes and to inequalities of wealth that could not be maintained by ideology alone. In the absence of a central military competence, the Chavín cultural hegemony disintegrated into innumerable local groups. Hilltop fortresses were built all over with each small group fighting to maintain and augment its share of the Chavín heritage. Eventually, regional entities developed, each with their own distinctive characteristics.

Moche (100 - 700 AD)

The Moche civilisation coalesced, developed and prospered along the banks of a dozen rivers draining the Andes across the arid north coast into the Pacific (between the Lambayeque and Nepeña valleys). Its dependence on highly developed irrigation systems in the restricted areas available in the valleys led to an an aggressive hierarchical state evidenced by images of warriors, priests and enthroned lords on Moche pottery.

They had no writing but their pottery, which shows an enduring Chavín influence, achieved a high level of development in the representation of their society. Moche ceramics are among the finest pre-Columbian accomplishments of sculptural realism and narrative drawing. They also produced exquisite erotic pottery that is now interpreted as having ceremonial rather than pornographic meaning.

Moche metalwork was more ornate and technologically advanced than that of earlier civilisations. Body ornaments of gold, silver, copper, and alloys were frequently inlaid with turquoise and lapis lazuli. Geometric patterns and mythological motifs, especially the feline deity, were used.

The Moche used sun dried mud bricks to built fortified structures perched on the sides of valleys, large palaces on the top of terraces, burial mounds and enormous pyramids like the Huaca del Sol in the Moche Valley (the Huaca de la Luna is not a burial mound but an elevated palace).

The extraordinary wealth, power and technological advancement of the Moche civilisation has only recently been revealed by discoveries at Loma Negra in 1960, at Sipán in 1987 and at La Mina in 1990. Undoubtedly, much more is yet to be discovered...

Nazca (200 - 800 AD)

The Paracas of Peru's southern coastal region who coexisted under the Chavín influence since about 900 BC evolved into the Nasca civilisation around 200 AD. The Nasca were therefore roughly contemporary with the Moche but they produced little architecture. They however excelled at making textiles and pottery with colourful stylised designs that contrasted sharply with the realism and restrained colour of Moche ceramics.

The Nazca are best known for their unique so-called lines that are the most enigmatic of all pre-Columbian remains. These are drawings in the earth of geometric shapes, animals, birds, and fish that can be fully recognised only from the air. Certainly for ceremonial use, the images were made by removing dark upper-surface stones to reveal a lighter substratum. Some resemble those painted on Nazca pottery but others are just straight lines several kms in length with no obvious purpose.

Many theories, some of them quite fanciful, have been proposed to explain their meaning and how they could have been laid out from the ground without the benefit of a bird's eye view, but none is generally accepted. Nobody knows...

Tiahuanaco (200 - 600AD)

Tiahuanaco is on the south shore of Lake Titicaca in what is now Bolivia. It was settled as early as 1000 BC but it is only about 200 AD that this urban complex became the center of a major civilisation characterised by massive stone buildings, fine textiles, pottery and metalwork.

The ceremonial buildings include a large eroded stepped platform called Acapana with foundations of buildings on the top, a sunken court temple with Chavín like stone heads tenoned into the walls and a very large rectangular platform called Calasasaya, enclosed by two mortarless masonry walls. The buildings and sculpture are designed to produce a monumental effect and monolithic appearance. Scattered throughout the Tiahuanaco area are pillar-like monolithic statues up to 24 feet high, decorated with low-relief detailing whose rigidly stylised religious imagery emphasise austerity, control, and permanence.

Inside the enclosure stands the Gateway of the Sun cut from a single stone and ornamented with delicate relief. It is only 12 foot high but it appears more monumental because of its design. The impressive central figure on the lintel represents the "Gateway God" that characterises the Tiahuanaco religion which was later adopted and spread by the Huari Empire.

The Tiahuanaco culture was the first to make such extensive use of stone for architecture, sculpture, and ceremonial objects before the Inca. The Tiahuanaco civilisation disintegrated around 1100 AD into a mulitude of small Aymara states that resisted invasion but finally had to submit to the Quechua speaking Inca in the 15th century.

Huari - Tiahuanaco Hegemony (600 - 800 AD)

The warrior society centred on Huari (near today's Ayacucho), adopted the Tiahuanaco religion and iconography around 600 AD but remained socio-economically separate from the ethnically different Aymara in Tiahuanaco. The Huari expansion put an end to Peruvian regionalism by military means and forcefully spread the Tiahuanaco religion and culture.

Although less refined than Tiahuanaco ceramics, Huari pottery stressed solid construction, bold design, and a rich use of bright colours. The spread of Huari pottery styles some bearing the Tiahuanaco "Gateway God" and other religious figures resulted in the obliteration of the old pottery styles over the whole coast from Nazca to Moche. Nevertheless, coastal Huari cultures produced high quality textiles with patterns based on motifs painted on Tiahuanaco pottery.

The Huari Empire reached its maximum extent around 800 reaching from the Ocoña valley in the south to Cajamarca in the north. Then, the center collapsed and Huari was abandoned. The Tiahuanaco Aymara had extended their control south as far as today's northern Chile and Argentina when the Huari Empire disintegrated.

Chimú (1300 - 1460 AD)

After the collapse of the Huari Hegemony the valley people of the northern coast remained largely disorganised until the growth of the Chimú culture based in Chan Chan in the Moche valley only 10 kms from the Huaca del Sol built by the Moche more than five centuries earlier.

The necessity of an undisputed central authority to plan, build and manage an efficient irrigation system led the Chimú, like the Moche before them, to organise themselves, around 1300 AD, into a powerful, aggressive military state which expanded as far as Piura in the north and almost to Lima in the south.

Their capital of Chan Chan was constructed of large walled adobe compounds reflecting those of earlier Huari settlements. It was the largest city in the Andes and consisted of ten major quadrangles, each one containing small pyramids, residences, markets, workshops, reservoirs, storehouses, gardens, and cemeteries. The buildings were decorated with geometrically patterned mosaics of adobe bricks and bas-reliefs of stylised animals, birds, and mythological figures. Their pottery, which was generally mass produced and plain black, never achieved the artistic value and sophistication of that of the Moche who had occupied the same lands five centuries earlier.

The valleys under their control were linked by roads and their territory was defended by fortresses (of which  Paramonga  in the south, is considered a masterpiece of military engineering). The elaborate irrigation systems they depended on to sustain large concentrated populations were nevertheless vulnerable to attack, which is one of the reasons the Inca were able to conquer them in 1460.

It is believed that the Inca learned a great deal from the Chimú after they conquered them, for they established a colony of Chimú workmen in Cuzco and Topa Inca Yupanqui who designed the political organisation of the empire based it largely on the Chimú system.

Pachacamac (600 - 1000)

The earliest major occupation and construction of Pachacamac dates to a culture known as Early Lima (200 BC-AD 600) that built the terraced adobe pyramid and temple there. It gained fame as the seat of a potent oracle and became known as the Temple of Pachacamac that continued to be a major centre and place of pilgrimage under the Huari Empire and was probably their the principal establishment on the coast. The Inca later built a large Temple of the Sun on the site and the Oracle of Pachacamac, to which the early Spanish explorers refer, was associated with a shrine in this temple.

Inca Empire (1450 - 1532)

The Inca, who called themselves Tawantinsuyu, originated in the village of Paqari-tampu, about 24 kms south of Cuzco. In the 12th century, the founder of the Inca dynasty, Manco Capac, led the tribe to settle in Cuzco which became their capital. There was little to distinguish the Tawantinsuyu from the many other tribes inhabiting small domains throughout the Andes until they began to expand in the 14th century under the fourth Inca, Mayta Capac.

Under the next emperor, Capac Yupanqui, the Inca first extended their influence beyond the Cuzco valley, and under Viracocha Inca, the eighth, they began a program of permanent conquest by establishing garrisons among the settlements of the peoples whom they had conquered. . Under Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438-71) the Inca conquered territory south to the Titicaca Basin and north to present-day Quito, making subject peoples of the powerful Aymara, Chancas, the Quechua, and the kingdom of Chimú. Under Topa Inca Yupanqui (1471-93) the empire reached its southernmost extent in central Chile. His death was followed by a struggle for the succession, from which Huayna Capac (1493-1525) emerged successful. Huayna Capac pushed the northern boundary of the empire to the Ancasmayo River before dying in an epidemic. His death set off another struggle for succession, which was still unresolved in 1532, when the Spanish arrived in Peru; by 1535 the empire was lost.

Inca society was highly stratified. The emperor, supported by a strong clergy, ruled through an aristocratic bureaucracy that exercised its authority with harsh and often repressive controls. Inca technology and architecture were highly developed but not very original. Their irrigation systems, palaces, temples, and fortifications can still be seen throughout the Andes. The economy was based on agriculture, its staples being corn, white and sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes, peanuts, chilli peppers, coca, cassava, and cotton. They raised guinea pigs, ducks, llamas, alpacas, and dogs. Clothing was made of llama wool and cotton. Houses were of stone or adobe mud. Practically every man was a farmer, producing his own food and clothing.

The Inca built a vast network of roads throughout this empire. It comprised two north-south roads, one running along the coast for about 3,600 km, the other inland along the Andes for a comparable distance, with many interconnecting links. Many short rock tunnels and vine-supported suspension bridges were constructed. Use of the system was strictly limited to government and military business; a well-organized relay service carried messages in the form of knotted cords at a rate of 250 kms a day.

They enforced their domination by moving entire populations from their original lands into other nations territories in order to better divide and control their subjects. This practice had the important side-effect of spreading the use of the Quechua language over all of the extensive Inca empire.

The Inca's tastes were simple and functional. Inca buildings were constructed with carefully shaped, precisely fitted stone masonry that was left undecorated. Trapezoidal doors and windows were characteristic. The Inca produced neither large-scale free-standing statues nor architectural sculpture. Highland Inca cities such as Machu Picchu were carefully planned to harmonise with the landscape.

The Inca state religion, presided over by priests, worshiped many gods and the religions of the pre-Inca peoples were tolerated leading to a complex mixture of ceremonies, practices, animistic beliefs in magical powers, and nature worship.
* Viracocha, the supreme creator god, was copied from the "Gateway God" of the earlier Tiahuanaco and Huari civilisations.
* Inti, or Apu-Punchau, the Sun God whose worship was compulsory.
* Apu Illapu, the rain giver, was the deity to whom the common man addressed his prayers for rain.
* Mama-Kilya, wife of the sun god, was the Moon Mother and the regulator of women's menstrual cycles.
* Mama-Paca was the "Earth Mother".
* Mama-Qoca was the "Sea Mother", etc...


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