Peruvian Prehistory

Most people are familiar with the Ancient Inca, and as an archaeologist I had some basic knowledge that there were other cultures that predated the Inca.  However, on our trip we gained a much wider knowledge of Peruvian prehistory.

Many cultures characterized the pre-history of the Andean region before the Inca culture.  The oldest radiocarbon dates for the Andean region go as far back as 18,000 years ago.  The Inca were only the last 300 years before Spanish colonization.  Here is the cliff notes version of what we learned:


  • The oldest pre-Inca culture in the northern Andean highlands of Peru from 900 BC to 200 BC.
  • The most well-known archaeological site of the Chavín era is Chavín de Huántar, located in the Andean highlands north of Lima.
  • It is believed to have been built around 900 BC and was the religious and political center of the Chavín people.


  • (600 BC – 200 EC) established on the peninsula of Paracas, influencing the area which is now known as the department of Ica.
  • Characterized by their big, underground necropolis where bodies were preserved as mummies wrapped in luxurious cloths and mantles, forming conical bales that were conserved under excellent conditions by the characteristics of the sands of the area, and cranial trepanations.


The Candelabra is a well-known prehistoric geoglyph found on the northern face of the Paracas Peninsula at Pisco Bay in Peru.  We visited this geoglyph on our first day in Peru.  While no one knows exactly who created it, pottery found nearby has been radio carbon dated to 200 BCE, the time of the Paracas culture.  The design is cut two feet into the soil, with stones possibly from a later date placed around it. The figure is 595 feet tall, large enough to be seen 12 miles at sea.  It is approximately 595 feet long, and is visible for several miles out to sea. The geoglyph consists of 2-foot-deep (0.61 m) trenches carved into the hillside and stones used to mark its edges.  Local tradition holds that it represents a lightning rod or staff of the god Viracocha, who was worshipped throughout South America.


  • In Quechua the word Nazca means the land of suffering
  • (300 BC – 1,000 EC): their main cultural center was established on the valley of Nazca in the department of Ica; they dominated the valleys of Chincha, Pisco, Ica and Nazca.
  • Their economic activity was based on agriculture, trade and fishing. In agriculture they achieved a high development, skilled manufacturers of hydraulic works, underground aqueducts, artificial watering systems, reservoirs that are still well-preserved and in daily use.


This culture is probably best know for the Nazca lines, a series of ancient geoglyps located in the Nazca Desert, south of Lima.  We visited Nazca and had the opportunity to fly over the lines on the second day of our trip.  Our guide, Luis, thinks it was a Waka, or holy place, that ancient people made pilgrimages to in order to release their suffering.  He believed that people walked the lines as part of their pilgrimage. 


  • (300 – 1200 EC.) settled down in the north coast, between the valleys of Lambayeque and Huarmey
  • the Moche were not politically organized as a monolithic empire or state. Rather, they were likely a group of autonomous polities that shared a common elite culture.
  • The nation was of theocratic organization, in its decadence was absorbed by the Chimú nation.


  •  (700 – 1100 EC.) also known as “Lambayeque Culture”, settled down in the north coast, Poma was its cultural center (Batán Grande), located in Lambayeque.
  • The nation was organized religiously, and its trace in the history gets lost associated to a great drought that lasted more than 30 years.


  • The Wari Empire was a political formation that emerged around AD 600 in the central highlands of Peru and lasted for about 500 years, to 1100 AD.
  • It operated about the same time as the Tiwanaku culture ( western Bolivia) and at one time was thought to have been derived from it.
  • Our guide at the regional museum in Ica described this culture as militant and war-like.


  • This nation has Naylamp as mythological origin, legendary character that arrived by the sea in a great fleet of rafts and warriors’ retinue from a foreign country to San José’s beaches (Lambayeque) and from there they were able to subordinate the Mochica nation that was in decadence, of whom they adopted their language.
  • This culture was contemporary to the Inca culture, and they reached as territorial domain the whole north coast, from Tumbes to the fortress of Paramonga in Lima.
  • They had their apogee in the XIV century, they rejected the Inca domain permanently, with bloody battles, and they were conquered partially, until their total domain by the Spanish conquerors in the XVI century.


  • The Inca kingdom was divided in four big “suyos” (counties or sectors)
  • The four “suyos” converged in the Koricancha, the most important sacred temple of the Incas in the city of Cusco, to where all the roads arrived.
  • Their cultural and religious center was the city of Cusco (the navel of the world) where the “Zapa Inca” resided with his real court.
    • Cusco – from the Quechua work Qosqo – origin, navel, belly button,
    • it was the center of the Inca kingdom        
    • Inca was not the name the people called themselves but the title of the king.


We spent the most time, 9 days, in Cusco.  It was a beautiful city, full of history and culture.  It was my favorite city that we visited during our time in Peru.  I will describe some of our experiences there in a later post.

Hasta Luego!

*Photos Courtesy of: Pam Baldwin


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Chair of Social Science, Humanities,
& Foreign Languages

Liberal Arts & University Transfer
Craven Community College

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