There were many cultures that preceded the Incas, although they are certainly the most famous of Peru’s pre-Colombian cultures. The remains of these cultures are mainly confined to the coastal area, as the Incas took over the land of all existing cultures in the mountainous area of Peru. Knowledge of Peruvian cultures is restricted by several factors. Firstly, the geography of the country; the Andean mountain range is extensive and difficult to travel through, the jungle is too dense to explore properly and the coastal desert has been periodically destroyed by flash floods from El Nino. Secondly, the fact that no written word has ever been discovered has also left us without a first hand testimony of everyday life. The third problem has been grave robbery. Archeologists rely heavily on evidence found in tombs to piece together ancient cultures, however thieves have stolen many of these artifacts to sell on the international market.
This quick overview of the main pre-Columbian cultures starts with the Chavín-Sechín culture that developed around 2000BC along the north coast before spreading inland to the central and northern highlands. Around 900BC the tribes of two main centres, Chavín de Huantar and Sechín Alto merged together to form one culture. They made huge advances in architecture, agriculture, pottery and weaving. They were also thought to be highly religious and the jaguar head that appears repeatedly throughout Peruvian history is thought to have been one of the main gods.
Around the same time further down the coast, South of Lima, the Paracas-Nasca cultures were starting to develop. There are very few ruins of large architectural structures still remaining from these cultures, however they left a wealth of ceramics and weaving. Most were found in tombs in the desert and have been amazingly well preserved by the arid nature of the area. The other major achievement of their era are the Nasca lines, a mixture of straight lines and drawings carved into the desert floor that are so big that they can only be seen from the air.
As the pottery and weaving of the southern cultures reached new levels of sophistication so it did on the northern coast. The Moche-Chimú culture based their capital, Chan Chán (the largest adobe city in the world), outside what is now the colonial city of Trujillo. They produced pottery from moulds and painted it with detailed scenes from everyday life. They also built large pyramid-like platform temples, such as the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna, that can still be found in Trujillo as well as the tomb of the Señor de Sipán discovered in 1987 outside Chiclayo. There is a wonderful exhibition of the treasures found in the tomb at the National museum in Lima. There were several factors that led to the demise of these cultures around 700AD two of which were a thirty-year drought followed by a ferocious flood caused by El Niño and the emergence of the Wari (also spelled Huari) tribe.
The Wari were formidable fighters and conquered many tribes imposing their beliefs and way of life on them. They came from the southern plains but expanded rapidly to most corners of Peru, into Bolivia and Argentina, their influence can be identified in most art, technology and architecture between 700 and 1100 AD. They formed a good working relationship with the Tiwanaku tribe based near Lake Titicaca, however both cultures grew separately and made substantial improvements in roads, irrigation systems, art and technology. Their rapid and unwelcome expansion meant that it was no surprise when they were replaced once more by the dominant local tribes around 1100AD, a good example is the Chimú tribe who reoccupied the abandoned Moche capital of Chan Chan. It is unsure what brought about the demise of the Tiwanaku culture but they are thought to be the antecedents of the Incas.
Despite being the most well-known era in Peruvian history, the Inca Empire survived for just over a century. The first Inca was Manco Capac and over a period of about 300 years his descendants conquered many of the surrounding tribes, the Colla to the south (around Arequipa) and the Chanka to the northwest. The victory over the Chanka was a major achievement, and from this point onwards (1430s) for the next 100 years the Inca empire expanded at a considerable rate. Pachacuti Inca and his son Topa did a great deal for the Inca Empire, known as Tahuantinsuyo (the Four Corners)spreading it as far as southern Colombia in the north and into Chile, Argentina and Bolivia to the south and east, creating the largest empire ever known in the Americas. The arrival of the Spanish in 1532 saw the end of the Inca Empire when Francisco Pizarro and 179 men managed to bring down the mighty kingdom. There were several contributing factors; the main one being the death of the Inca leader,
Huayna Capac, in 1527. This led to a civil war between his two sons Atahualpa, who ruled the northern half from Quito, and Huascar, who ruled the southern half from Cusco. Shortly after Ataphualpa’s victory, Pizzaro captured him and held the indigenous leader hostage before killing him. Another major factor in the fall of the Inca empire was their mythology. They believed their creator god, Viracocha, to be light-haired, light-skinned and bearded and assumed the Spaniards to be his descendants. They consequently welcomed the Spaniards wholeheartedly which facilitated their own conquest. The next 30 years were ruled by turmoil, with unsuccessful attempts by Manco Inca in 1536 and Túpac Amaru in 1572 to regain Cusco.
The Spaniards fought amongst themselves for control of this rich land and there was a succession of Viceroys that answered to the Spanish crown from the newly founded city of Lima. The Mita system was introduced supposedly to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism but in reality it provided the conquistadors with free and much needed labour. The pattern of rule did not change much over the next 200 years, until the Indian uprising of Túpac Amaru II in 1780. He was tortured to death in Cusco, a fate that also befell the leaders of the 1814 rebellion. By this time however the Criollos (locally-born Spaniards) where beginning to get disgruntled by the privileges allowed to the native Spanish and when a chance for independence came in the form of José de San Martin from Argentina and Simón Bolívar from Venezuela they took it. Independence was declared in 1821 although most of the country was still under Spanish rule until December 1824.
Since independence Peru has not had a very smooth run, the War of the Pacific in 1879 resulted in the loss of a large area of nitrate rich land in the northern Atacama Desert. There has been an on going land dispute with Ecuador and a succession of unstable governments. In 1968 the socialist military government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado brought about major change with land reforms, an improvement in the standard of living for workers and the nationalisation of major industries. In 1985 Alan Garcia came to power and ruled for 5 years. This period was a disaster for Peru, with the economic gains of the last decade being thrown away and the rise of two guerilla groups: the Sendero Luminoso (shining path) and the Túpac Amaru (MRTA). They caused major disruptions across the country and were widely feared. The capture of both groups’ leaders in 1992 was a vital coup for the recently elected government of Alberto Fujimori. It helped Fujimori maintain his high level of popularity after his radical move of suspending the country’s constitution. Since that time Peru has continued to grow economically but not everyone’s standard of living has improved.