History of Peru


Pre-Inca Cultures

The first great conquest of Andean space began some 10,000 years ago when the descendants of the original migrants who crossed the land bridge over what is now the Bering Straits between the Asian and American continents reached northern South America. Over the next several millennia, hunter-gatherers fanned out from their bridgehead at Panama to populate the whole of South America. By about 2500 B.C., small villages inhabited by farmers and fishermen began to spring up in the fertile river valleys of the north coast of Peru.

These ancient Peruvians lived in simple adobe houses, cultivated potatoes and beans, fished in the nearby sea, and grew and wove cotton for their clothing. The catalyst for the development of the more advanced civilizations that followed was the introduction of a staple annual crop--maize (corn), and the development of irrigation, both dating from around the thirteenth century B.C. The stabilization of the food supply and ensuing surplus formed the foundation for the development of the great civilizations that rose and fell across the Andes for more than a thousand years prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

The Incas, of course, were only the most recent of these highly developed native American cultures to evolve in the Andes. The earliest central state to emerge in the northern highlands (that is, a state able to control both highland and coastal areas) was the Kingdom of Chavín, which emerged in the northern highlands and prospered for some 500 years between 950 B.C. and 450 B.C. Although it was originally thought by Julio C. Tello, the father of Peruvian archaeology, to have been "the womb of Andean civilization," it now appears to have had Amazonic roots that may have led back to Mesoamerica.

Chavín was probably more of a religious than political panAndean phenomenon. It seems to have been a center for the missionary diffusion of priests who transmitted a particular set of ideas, rituals, and art style throughout what is now northcentral Peru. The apparent headquarters for this religious cult in all likelihood was Chavín de Huantar in the Ancash highlands, whose elaborately carved stone masonry buildings are among the oldest and most beautiful in South America. The great, massive temple there, oriented to the cardinal points of the solstice, was perceived by the people of Chavín to be the center of the world, the most holy and revered place of the Chavín culture. This concept of God and his elite tied to a geographical location at the center of the cosmos--the idea of spatial mysticism--was fundamental to Inca and pre-Inca beliefs.

After the decline of the Chavín culture around the beginning of the Christian millennium, a series of localized and specialized cultures rose and fell, both on the coast and in the highlands, during the next thousand years. On the coast, these included the Gallinazo, Mochica, Paracas, Nazca, and Chimú civilizations. Although each had their salient features, the Mochica and Chimú warrant special comment for their notable achievements.

The Mochica occupied a 136-kilometer-long expanse of the coast from the Río Moche Valley and reached its apogee toward the end of the first millennium A.D. They built an impressive irrigation system that transformed kilometers of barren desert into fertile and abundant fields capable of sustaining a population of over 50,000. Without benefit of the wheel, the plough, or a developed writing system, the Mochica nevertheless achieved a remarkable level of civilization, as witnessed by their highly sophisticated ceramic pottery, lofty pyramids, and clever metalwork. In 1987 near Sipán, archaeologists unearthed an extraordinary cache of Mochica artifacts from the tomb of a great Mochica lord, including finely crafted gold and silver ornaments, large, gilded copper figurines, and wonderfully decorated ceramic pottery. Indeed, the Mochica artisans portrayed such a realistic and accurately detailed depiction of themselves and their environment that we have a remarkably authentic picture of their everyday life and work.

Whereas the Mochica were renowned for their realistic ceramic pottery, the Chimú were the great city-builders of pre-Inca civilization. As loose confederation of cities scattered along the coast of northern Peru and southern Ecuador, the Chimú flourished from about 1150 to 1450. Their capital was at Chan Chan outside of modern-day Trujillo. The largest pre-Hispanic city in South America at the time, Chan Chan had 100,000 inhabitants. Its twenty square kilometers of precisely symmetrical design was surrounded by a lush garden oasis intricately irrigated from the Río Moche several kilometers away. The Chimú civilization lasted a comparatively short period of time, however. Like other coastal states, its irrigation system, watered from sources in the high Andes, was apparently vulnerable to cutoff or diversion by expanding highland polities.

In the highlands, both the Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) culture, near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and the Wari (Huari) culture, near the present-day city of Ayacucho, developed large urban settlements and wide-ranging state systems between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1000. Each exhibited many of the aspects of the engineering ingenuity that later appeared with the Incas, such as extensive road systems, store houses, and architectural styles. Between A.D. 1000 and 1450, however, a period of fragmentation shattered the previous unity achieved by the Tiwanaku-Wari stage. During this period, scores of different ethnic-based groups of varying sizes dotted the Andean landscape. In the central and southern Andes, for example, the Chupachos of Huánuco numbered some 10,000, while the Lupacas on the west bank of Lake Titicaca comprised over 100,000.

The Incas

The Incas of Cusco (Cuzco) originally represented one of these small and relatively minor ethnic groups, the Quechuas. Gradually, as early as the thirteenth century, they began to expand and incorporate their neighbors. Inca expansion was slow until about the middle of the fifteenth century, when the pace of conquest began to accelerate, particularly under the rule of the great emperor Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438-71). Historian John Hemming describes Pachacuti as "one of those protean figures, like Alexander or Napoleon, who combine a mania for conquest with the ability to impose his will on every facet of government." Under his rule and that of his son, Topa Inca Yupanqui (1471-93), the Incas came to control upwards of a third of South America, with a population of 9 to 16 million inhabitants under their rule. Pachacuti also promulgated a comprehensive code of laws to govern his far-flung empire, called Tawantinsuyu, while consolidating his absolute temporal and spiritual authority as the God of the Sun who ruled from a magnificently rebuilt Cusco.

Although displaying distinctly hierarchical and despotic features, Incan rule also exhibited an unusual measure of flexibility and paternalism. The basic local unit of society was the ayllu, which formed an endogamous nucleus of kinship groups who possessed collectively a specific, although often disconnected, territory. In the ayllu, grazing land was held in common (private property did not exist), whereas arable land was parceled out to families in proportion to their size. Since self-sufficiency was the ideal of Andean society, family units claimed parcels of land in different ecological niches in the rugged Andean terrain. In this way, they achieved what anthropologists have called "vertical complementarity," that is, the ability to produce a wide variety of crops--such as maize, potatoes, and quinoa (a protein-rich grain)--at different altitudes for household consumption.

The principle of complementarity also applied to Andean social relations, as each family head had the right to ask relations, allies, or neighbors for help in cultivating his plot. In return, he was obligated to offer them food and chicha (a fermented corn alcoholic beverage), and to help them on their own plots when asked. Mutual aid formed the ideological and material bedrock of all Andean social and productive relations. This system of reciprocal exchange existed at every level of Andean social organization: members of the ayllus, curacas (local lords) with their subordinate ayllus, and the Inca himself with all his subjects.

Ayllus often formed parts of larger dual organizations with upper and lower divisions called moieties, and then still larger units, until they comprised the entire ethnic group. As it expanded, the Inca state became, historian Nathan Wachtel writes, "the pinnacle of this immense structure of interlocking units. It imposed a political and military apparatus on all of these ethnic groups, while continuing to rely on the hierarchy of curacas, who declared their loyalty to the Inca and ruled in his name." In this sense, the Incas established a system of indirect rule that enabled the incorporated ethnic groups to maintain their distinctiveness and self-awareness within a larger imperial system.

All Inca people collectively worked the lands of the Inca, who served as representative of the God of the Sun--the central god and religion of the empire. In return, they received food, as well as chicha and coca leaves (which were chewed and used for religious rites and for medicinal purposes); or they made cloth and clothing for tribute, using the Inca flocks; or they regularly performed mita, or service for public works, such as roads and buildings, or for military purposes that enabled the development of the state. The Inca people also maintained the royal family and bureaucracy, centered in Cusco. In return for these services, the Inca allocated land and redistributed part of the tribute received--such as food, cloth, and clothes--to the communities, often in the form of welfare. Tribute was stored in centrally located warehouses to be dispensed during periods of shortages caused by famine, war, or natural disaster. In the absence of a market economy, Inca redistribution of tribute served as the primary means of exchange. The principles of reciprocity and redistribution, then, formed the organizing ideas that governed all relations in the Inca empire from community to state.

One of the more remarkable elements of the Inca empire was the mitmaq system. Before the Incas, these were colonies of settlers sent out from the ayllus to climatically different Andean terrains to cultivate crops that would vary and enrich the community diet. Anthropologist John V. Murra dubbed these unique Andean island colonies "vertical archipelagos," which the Incas adapted and applied on a large scale to carve out vast new areas of cultivation. The Incas also expanded the original Andean concept of mitmaq as a vehicle for developing complementary sources of food to craft specialization and military expansion. In the latter instance, Inca mitmaq were used to establish permanent garrisons to maintain control and order on the expanding Inca frontier. What "began as a means of complementing productive access to a variety of ecological tiers had become," in the words of Murra, "an onerous means of political control" under the Incas.

By the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century, the Inca Empire had reached its maximum size. Such powerful states as the coastal Chimú Kingdom were defeated and incorporated into the empire, although the Chimús spoke a language, Yunga, that was entirely distinct from the Incas' Quechua. But as the limits of the central Andean culture area were reached in present-day Chile and Argentina, as well as in the Amazon forests, the Incas encountered serious resistance, and those territories were never thoroughly subjugated.

At the outset, the Incas shared with most of their ethnic neighbors the same basic technology: weaving, pottery, metallurgy, architecture, construction engineering, and irrigation agriculture. During their period of dominance, little was added to this inventory of skills, other than the size of the population they ruled and the degree and efficiency of control they attained. The latter, however, constituted a rather remarkable accomplishment, particularly because it was achieved without benefit of either the wheel or a formal system of writing. Instead of writing, the Incas used the intricate and highly accurate khipu (knot-tying) system of recordkeeping . Imperial achievements were the more extraordinary considering the relative brevity of the period during which the empire was built (perhaps four generations) and the formidable geographic obstacles of the Andean landscape.

Viewed from the present-day perspective of Peruvian underdevelopment, one cannot help but admire a system that managed to bring under cultivation four times the amount of arable land as today. Achievements such as these caused some twentieth-century Peruvian scholars of the indigenous peoples, known as indigenistas (Indigenists), such as Hildebrando Castro Pozo and Luis Eduardo Valcárcel, to idealize the Inca past and to overlook the hierarchical nature and totalitarian mechanisms of social and political control erected during their Incan heyday. To other intellectuals, however, from José Carlos Mariátegui to Luis Guillermo Lumbreras, the path to development has continued to call for some sort of return to the country's pre-Columbian past of communal values, autochthonous technology, and genius for production and organization.

By the time that the Spaniards arrived in 1532, the empire extended some 1,860 kilometers along the Andean spine--north to southern Colombia and south to northern Chile, between the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Amazonian rain forest in the east. Some five years before the Spanish invasion, this vast empire was rocked by a civil war that, combined with diseases imported by the Spaniards, would ultimately weaken its ability to confront the European invaders. The premature death by measles of the reigning Sapa Inca, Huayna Cápac (1493-1524), opened the way for a dynastic struggle between the emperor's two sons, Huáscar (from Cusco) and the illegitimate Atahualpa (from Quito), who each had inherited half the empire. After a five-year civil war (1528-32), Atahualpa (1532-33) emerged victorious and is said to have tortured and put to death more than 300 members of Huáscar's family. This divisive and debilitating internecine conflict left the Incas particularly vulnerable just as Francisco Pizarro and his small force of adventurers came marching up into the Sierra.

Peru History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress