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Explore the myths...

Peru's Ancient Civilizations

Five thousand years ago approximately, at the time of the development of great cultures in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, a small yet imposing urban center was also developing on a narrow coastal plain of the Pacific Ocean. Caral, situated in the middle of the Supe Valley, amid fertile lands close to the sea, was inhabited by skilled fishermen, farmers, and expert seafarers. Archaeologists believe that the Caral or Norte Chico civilization emerged, developed, and continuously occupied this major cultural complex during the Late Archaic period, from at least 3000 B.C. to 1800 B.C., thus considering it the oldest known civilization in the Americas.

Caral impressed investigators when they found that these people had developed farming techniques and sustainable practices that were thought did not exist until centuries later. The citadel had many mud-brick structures and circular plazas as well as six main pyramids that once stood for administrative and religious purposes. It is theorized that Caral is the origin of Andean cultures.

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Coastal civilizations

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The Moche civilization, also called Mochica, flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the first to the 8th Century C.E. Its name comes from the great site of Moche, which appears to have been the capital of the kingdom situated in the Moche river valley. The Moche settlements stretched for 350 kilometers along the hot and arid coastal strip of northern Peru from the Lambayeque River valley to the Nepena river valley. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that the Moche were organized as a group of autonomous polities instead of a monolithic empire.

The best-known Southern Moche archaeological discovery until the 1980s were those found on the Moche site near the modern city of Trujillo. Two giant structures, namely the Temple of the Sun (Huaca del Sol) and the Temple of the Moon (Huaca de la Luna), stand-out on the site. The Temple of the Sun is a causeway and a stepped pyramid that measures 340 by 136 meters at the base and is 41 meters high. A short distance away, the Temple of the Moon is a terraced platform built against a natural hillside and capped with large rooms and courtyards. Over the surrounding area, several hundred meters in all directions, there is much evidence of a dense occupation, which indicates that Moche was not only a political and ceremonial center but also a populated citadel. In 1987, archaeologists made an important discovery in Northern Moche territory, at the site of Huaca Rajada, near the town of Sipan. For the first time a royal burial site was found intact in South America, and it belonged to a Moche ruler from the third century that after the discovery it became known as “The Lord of Sipan”.

The Chimu civilization, also known as the kingdom of Chimor, flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the 12th and 15th centuries CE. The Chimu were the largest and most developed civilization in the Late Intermediate Period, and only the Inka Empire at the dawn of the Chimor overpassed the geographical size and greatness of this prosperous culture.


The traditional stories tell that Taycanamo, ruler of the Chimú was considered to have been born from a golden egg and then arrived from the sea. Another notable ruler was Guacricaur, who expanded his kingdom into the Moche, Santa, and Zaña valleys. Chan Chan, located in the mouth of the Moche Valley became its capital and the hub of a vast trade and tribute network with a population of no less than 26,000 people. Actually, Chan Chan is considered the largest adobe city in the Americas and the second in the world. The Chimú extended their territory even further south and in 1375 CE, they conquered the Lambayeque (Sican) culture assimilating some of their cultural practices and artistic ideas. At its height during the reign of Minchançaman c. 1400 CE, the area of Chimu's influence stretched 1300 km along the coast of northern Peru. This ended when the powerful Inca expansion reached from the mountains to the coast and conquered them around 1470 AD.

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The Paracas culture developed on the peninsula of the same name, located in present-day southern Peru in the region of Ica, during the Early Horizon and the Early Intermediate periods (c. 900 BC–AD 400). Scholars believe that the Paracas culture’s earlier phase, named Paracas Cavernas, is related to the Chavín culture (c. 1000–400 BC). The pottery of the period is not well-fired and was sometimes painted after firing. In later periods, the Paracas artisans show an improvement in pottery making. The Paracas Necrópolis people were named for and described by the study of cemeteries discovered at Cerro Colorado. The people wrapped the mummified corpses of their deceased, along with funeral offerings, in embroidered cloaks, which are among the finest examples of the art of textile making. The multicoloured designs on these textiles bear a definite relationship to those of painted pottery of the contemporaneous and later Nazca culture. These people also engaged in artificial deformation of the skull by binding the skull in infancy.


The Nazca were contemporary with the Paracas culture and even outlasted them. Proof of this is that many Paracas sites have been discovered beneath Nazca settlements. The Nazca civilization was politically described as a collection of chiefdoms that acted united occasionally for mutual interest rather than as a single unified state. This is reflected by their art and architecture, which displays common themes across different settlements, but at the same time, there is a general lack of uniform town planning or evidence of centralization. The maximum population has been estimated at 25,000 people, spread across small villages, which were typically built on terraced hillsides near irrigated floodplains.

As they developed, the Nazca extended their influence to the north and to the south. In addition, as Andean camelids do not survive in the coastal areas, the use of their wool in Nazca textiles is evidence that they traded with highland cultures. In addition, some Nazca mummies have been found wearing headdresses made with the feathers of rainforest birds, once again, illustrating that goods were traded across great distances.

Many aspects of the Nazca lifestyle are revealed by the artifacts discovered in the graves, often placed up to 4.5 meters deep and accessed through a shaft. Fine pottery and textiles were buried with the dead who were carefully wrapped in textiles and usually placed in a seated position, skulls sometimes display deliberate elongation, and some wore tattoos. Tombs were mostly designed to be re-opened and more mummies added, perhaps indicating ancestor worship.

The Nazca drew geoglyphs and lines across the surrounding deserts and hills; stylized drawings of animals, plants, and human beings, or simple lines connecting sacred sites or pointing to water sources. Their exact purpose is disputed, but most believe that they were designed to be walked along as part of religious rites and processions. These were made by removing the oxidized darker desert surface and revealing the lighter color underneath. Most designs are only visible from the air, but some were made on hillsides and so are visible from the ground.

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