Beyond the sculpted stone walls of Machu Picchu, the astounding earthen temples of the Moche culture and the sacred pyramids of Caral, Peru’s legacy is a long history of developing civilizations that began on the frigid high Andean plateaus more than ten millennia ago.
The people who built the lost city of the Incas; the same ones who designed the most intricate roads and designed the most incredible hydraulic and agricultural engineering works, started out from cold caves at an altitude of more than four thousand meters. These hunter-gathers were the first inhabitants of our country and have left countless traces of their way of life at sites such as Pikimachay (Ayacucho), Lauricocha (Huánuco) and Toquepala (Tacna), where researchers have unraveled the mystery of the birth of Peruvian civilization.
These first inhabitants left their caves and shelters around seven thousand years ago to descend to the western Pacific valleys, and from there crossed the coastal hills and finally reached the sea. The llama and deer hunters quickly became fishermen and shellfish collectors and then began domesticating plants in the warm valleys that cut through the desert. Men such as the man from Nanchoc bear witness to this dramatic juncture for Peruvians, when they began to cultivate their first crops such as lima beans, corn, potatoes and cotton, allowing them to leave their nomadic life behind and settle in their first hamlets.
a. Ancient civilizations
Caral, now considered the oldest civilization in America, appeared over more than five thousand years ago in the Supe River Valley, north of the city of Lima. A contemporary of Egypt and Mesopotamia, this coastal dominion completely changed the course of Peru’s history more than a decade ago and solidified our country as one of the world’s most important cultural hubs, along with Mesoamerica, and the basins of the Nile, Euphrates and Indus.
Caral is the culmination of an early cultural process called the Initial Period, whose main features are the absence of pottery (Preceramic) and the construction of tiered adobe temples, circular town squares and small villages around sacred and government centers. Notable archaeological sites such as Sechín, on the Áncash coast, and the Temple of the Crossed Hands of Kotosh,
in Huánuco, belong to this period.
About a thousand years later, Chavín emerged in the north-central Andes, in the state of Áncash. This new government spread its culture throughout a large portion of the country, as can be seen in the «Chavinoid» images and symbols at sites as far away as the southern coast and the Altiplano. Its main religious center was located in the Waqueqsa river valley, in the beautiful region of Conchucos, and is one of the country’s greatest archaeological discoveries. Before Caral was discovered, Chavín was believed to be the first great Peruvian
Around 700 B.C., another fascinating culture appeared on the coast, the first great desert people: the Paracas, who were adept weavers – their great tapestries of intricate designs are known around the world. They are known for their burial methods and for having performed successful skull operations, as is demonstrated by evidence discovered by Julio C. Tello in the 1940s.
During the first centuries AD, and following the dominance of Chavín, various dominions appeared throughout the territory, including the Mochica, whose rule encompassed almost the entire northern coast of Peru. With its center in the Moche valley, at La Libertad, these people are known for their ceramic figurines, their delicate goldsmithing and their efficient use of water resources that allowed them to significantly expand their agricultural frontier and support a large population.
What has been called the first regional empire appeared after this initial regional development; that of the Wari, around 550 AD. As a continuation of the Tiahuanaco culture, forged on the Peruvian and Bolivian Altiplano, the Wari ruled an extensive territory and established what would later become Tahuantinsuyo. It was this people that began tracing the great Pre-Hispanic roads and laying the foundations of the social and territorial governance that the Incas of Cusco would then inherit.
The disappearance of the Wari, around 1200 AD, saw the beginning of the Late Intermediate period, a second wave of regional developments where several cultures, such as Ichma, holders of the powerful oracle of Pachacamac, stand out; the Chincha, great merchants of the sea who later became ‘trading partners’ of the Incas; and especially the Chimú, the great lords of the north, who took the place of the Mochica and the Lambayeque. Like their predecessors, the Chimú are noted for their exquisite pottery and complex irrigation systems. They were the ones who built the immense city of Chan Chan, the largest adobe construction in the world.
This was also the era of the Chachopyas, the ‘men of the clouds,’ lords of the lush cloud forests of Amazonas, where they built the most incredible cities and mausoleums, carved into the steepest cliff faces.
As these cultures approached their zenith, a dominion of Quechua origin began to take shape in the valley of the Vilcanota River, in Cusco. They gained land using alliances and systems of reciprocity, in addition to force. After defeating the Chancas of Apurímac and Ayacucho, the Incas – as history tells it – built the largest empire in America. It covered the territory of six modern-day countries and united peoples from the most dissimilar backgrounds under one flag, thanks to strict social control and an efficient system of governance.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries the Incas created what no one had ever imagined before: a great state connected by an efficient road network – the Qhapac Ñan – which summarized millennia of wisdom. Rather than devastating the cultures they conquered, the Incas assimilated the ways of life of their subjects and used the best aspects of each society to build their amazing culture.
b. The arrival of the Spanish
The Inca culture confronted Hispanic culture with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. In 1532, the forces of Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca Atahualpa in Cajamarca, an event that marked the decline of the Inca Empire. In 1542 the Viceroyalty of Peru was created, which depended on the Spanish crown. The territory of the Viceroyalty comprised a large part of South America and remained under diverse forms of control by its authorities for almost 200 years.
The viceroyalty was consolidated in the sixteenth century with the viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who established the basis of the colonial economy: a system for the control of indigenous labor (mita) for mining and craft production. The exploitation of mining wealth affected the colonized Peruvian Indians who saw their rights restricted and their culture oppressed.
The reforms of the eighteenth century created great disagreement between many social sectors and successive rebellions broke out. The most important indigenous uprising was led by Tupac Amaru II, who was responsible for the start of the Creole movement that made Latin America independent in the 19th century.
In 1821, Peru was declared an independent country by Don Jose de San Martin and in 1824 Simón Bolívar culminated the liberation process with the wars of independence. As a republic in the process of formation, Peru had to face economic crises and military caudillismos during its first years, which made it difficult to establish a new national spirit between Indians and mestizos.
In economic terms, guano, cotton and sugar all experienced a boom. Negro slavery ended in the mid-nineteenth century. The first waves of Chinese migrants, who arrived to work in agriculture, began at the same time. Civil governments appeared later with Manuel Pardo.
By then, the guano boom, the product which had given the country its main income, had ended and the national economy entered a crisis situation. Around 1879 the country faced a war with Chile in which it was defeated. Amidst the bankruptcy, a new heyday of military governments ensued and the civilians returned. Thus began a period called the «Aristocratic Republic,» which was based on an economy dominated by the landed elite.
This saw the beginning of the rubber production boom in the jungle and the gap widened further between an elite, mostly from the capital, and the rest of the population in the interior of the country, who mainly lived off agriculture.
During the 1970s, Peru was ruled by a military dictatorship led by General Juan Velasco. The military government nationalized oil, the media and reformed the agricultural foundations, whereby ownership of agricultural land changed radically. Democratic governments returned in the 1980s, but the country was plunged into a severe economic crisis with severe hyperinflation.
At the same time, the emergence of two terrorist movements took on greater importance, violently shaking the country for twenty years. In the 1990s, Alberto Fujimori, after a self-coup in 1992, established a series of laws that initiated the end of these terrorist groups. The country rejoined the world economic system, from which it had retired in the previous decade due to its decision not to pay its external debt.
Since 2000, Peru has had successive, clearly democratic governments, with Alejandro Toledo, Alan Garcia, Ollanta Humala Tasso, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Martín Vizcarra Cornejo. The country is in the middle of a period of economic development, with growth rates never previously achieved and overcoming the crises of the past decades.