On the trail of the ancient "superstars" of South America

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

The Incas may have arrived late on the scene, but they made their mark and left an enduring legacy.

While the Incas have become the superstar civilisation of South America, they were latecomers on the scene.

Their civilisation only crystallised in the mountains of Peru in the 13th century and Machu Picchu was built as late as the 15th century. But civilisations in Latin America date back to 4000BC and Peru’s first culture was the Caral, from 2600BC. 

Living inland, the Caral cultivated some of the seven species of endemic cotton to make nets for fishermen 20km away, and traded seafood. They had no weapons.

In the cool Andes climate, where the temperature drops 6C for every 1000m of elevation, the Chavin culture developed from 900BC to 200BC and produced the loom. The related Peruvian Paracas culture flourished during the same period and was very good at making textiles. Textiles were vital. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated for wool and as beasts of burden. The Nazca people mixed cotton with llama wool to make warm fabrics.

Textiles were used to make weapons — slingshots for stones — and cotton for rope bridges.

As the Latin American poet Velarde wrote: “They had the patience and philosophy of those who weave.”

Pre-Colombian South American civilisations built small dams to store water and farmed tomatoes, avocados, capsicums, beans, corn, quinoa, sweet potatoes and, of course, some of the 300 species of potatoes originally found in Peru alone. The Tiahuanaco people by Lake Titicaca dehydrated potatoes to a tenth of their weight, making them easier to carry. Potatoes rehydrated during cooking and they may be these ancient cultures’ greatest gift to the world.

But it was the Moche, at their peak in northern Peru from about 100BC to AD800, who were probably the most important. They are described by one anthropologist and historian as “the Greeks of South America”.

They used the khipu counting device — a big piece of thread with smaller, coloured strings coming off it, which they would knot to keep account of goods.

They fished in tidal pools, developed advanced pottery, in particular “stirrup” spouted vessels. They also developed canal irrigation, which remains in use today.

In fact, I am passing some now, which feed off the Moche River.

Peru is one of the world’s biggest asparagus producers, though locals here in Trujillo tell me they don’t like it. But channels originally built by Moche are ensuring a good crop, along with cauliflowers, alfalfa and sugar cane — despite Trujillo’s desert climate.

But I am not here for that.

For the Moche also built flat-topped pyramids of adobe mud bricks, and the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun (pictured at top) in Trujillo are among the most significant.

The moon was a more important god than the sun, and the Temple of the Moon has undergone a major restoration.

A massive dirt slope in 1998, it has been carefully dug out to the temple’s main facade. Warriors, prisoners, fishermen, priests and fertility symbols, larger than life and in colourful rows, adorn the 20m tall wall.

Its Mural of the Myths depicts ancient and largely undeciphered stories and beliefs.

Human skeletons dating back to 600AD have been found in the Temple of the Moon’s Sacrifice Zone. Death came from a ritual cut to the neck, the blood caught. The Great Altar has been uncovered.

The gods gave good rain and weather and that meant good crops, and the Incas gave human sacrifices in exchange. Often they were children, and often they were drugged before being sacrificed.

There are more of these flat-topped adobe pyramids around Lima where the archaeological site of Huaca Pucllana is a huge store of the Lima culture, which developed on the coast between AD200 and AD700. It even has a popular restaurant, which should be booked well in advance.

The Chincha people, who were eventually overrun by the Incas, built large balsa rafts and traded as far as Costa Rica and Honduras. They particularly dealt in spondylus, a type of mollusc, which had religious as much as nutritional value. It was believed that the Gods ate spondylus.

It is an interesting twist of fate that the Incas have become the most famous civilisation for it was they who fell to the Spanish in 1533. 

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in north-west Peru — one of just 164 men with horses. The Inca army may have been 40,000 strong but it was this small European force, with steel, armour, gunpowder, weapons and diseases that prevailed.

They took Atahualpa, the last Inca ruler, hostage. He offered them one room containing an estimated 5.5 tonnes of gold, and two containing 11 tonnes of silver as his ransom. They took the riches and killed him anyway.

And that’s a whole other chapter in Peru’s story…

Finding more layers


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