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Peru's Ancient Civilizations
Around 5000 years ago, amidst the flourishing civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, Caral, an impressive urban center, emerged on a narrow coastal plain by the Pacific Ocean. Situated in Peru's Supe Valley, this ancient civilization thrived from 3000 B.C. to 1800 B.C., making it the oldest known civilization in the Americas.
Skilled fishermen, farmers, and seafarers inhabited Caral, utilizing innovative farming techniques and sustainable practices ahead of their time. The complex featured mud-brick structures, circular plazas, and six main pyramids serving administrative and religious purposes. Caral's significance extends beyond its historical importance; it is believed to be the birthplace of Andean cultures, leaving a lasting legacy on the region's cultural development.
The Moche civilization, thriving from the 1st to 8th century C.E., inhabited Peru's northern coast. The capital, Moche, stood in the Moche river valley, while their settlements extended 350 kilometers along the arid coastal strip from Lambayeque to Nepena river valleys. Rather than a centralized empire, the Moche were likely organized as autonomous polities.
The notable Moche site near Trujillo reveals two remarkable structures: the Temple of the Sun (Huaca del Sol) and the Temple of the Moon (Huaca de la Luna). The Temple of the Sun is a massive stepped pyramid, measuring 340x136 meters at the base and standing 41 meters high. Nearby, the Temple of the Moon consists of terraced platforms against a natural hillside, featuring large rooms and courtyards. The surrounding area shows dense occupation, indicating Moche was not only a political and ceremonial center but also a bustling citadel. In 1987, the Huaca Rajada site near Sipan unveiled an intact royal burial, belonging to the renowned "Lord of Sipan," a Moche ruler from the third century. It stands as a significant discovery in South American archaeology.
The Chimu civilization, reigning from the 12th to 15th centuries CE, thrived on Peru's northern coast. They were the largest and most advanced civilization during the Late Intermediate Period, only surpassed by the Inca Empire in terms of size and greatness.
Legend tells of Taycanamo, the Chimú ruler believed to be born from a golden egg and arriving from the sea. Guacricaur, another notable leader, expanded the kingdom into the Moche, Santa, and Zaña valleys. Chan Chan, situated at the mouth of the Moche Valley, became the capital—a bustling hub of trade and tribute with a population exceeding 26,000. It is now recognized as the largest adobe city in the Americas and the second-largest in the world. The Chimú extended their territory southward, assimilating aspects of the Lambayeque (Sican) culture in 1375 CE. At its height under Minchançaman around 1400 CE, Chimu's influence stretched 1300 km along Peru's northern coast. However, their reign ended in 1470 AD when the mighty Inca expansion reached the coast, conquering the Chimu.
The Paracas culture thrived on the eponymous peninsula in southern Peru's Ica region during the Early Horizon and Early Intermediate periods (c. 900 BC–AD 400). Paracas Cavernas, an earlier phase, is linked to the Chavín culture (c. 1000–400 BC). Early pottery lacked proper firing and was sometimes painted after. However, Paracas artisans improved pottery making in later periods. The Paracas Necrópolis people, named after Cerro Colorado's discovered cemeteries, wrapped mummified bodies in elaborately embroidered cloaks—a testament to their textile artistry. These vibrant designs bear resemblance to contemporaneous and later Nazca painted pottery. Additionally, these people practiced artificial skull deformation by binding infants' skulls.
The Nazca civilization coexisted with and outlasted the Paracas culture, as evidenced by the discovery of Paracas sites beneath Nazca settlements. Politically, the Nazca consisted of chiefdoms occasionally united for mutual interest, rather than a centralized state. Their art and architecture shared common themes, yet lacked uniform town planning or centralization. The estimated population of 25,000 people resided in small villages built on terraced hillsides near irrigated floodplains.
As the Nazca developed, their influence expanded north and south. Their use of Andean camelid wool in textiles suggests trade with highland cultures, despite the coastal environment. Some Nazca mummies wore headdresses adorned with rainforest bird feathers, highlighting long-distance trade.
Burial artifacts unveil aspects of Nazca life, with graves up to 4.5 meters deep and accessed through shafts. Fine pottery and textiles accompanied the carefully wrapped, seated deceased. Skulls displayed deliberate elongation, and some individuals bore tattoos. Reopening tombs to add more mummies may indicate ancestor worship.
The Nazca created geoglyphs and lines across the desert and hills, depicting animals, plants, humans, and connecting sacred sites or water sources. Their purpose remains disputed, but they likely served religious processions and rites, often walked upon. These designs involved removing the oxidized desert surface to reveal lighter-colored soil. While most are visible only from the air, some were created on hillsides, visible from the ground.