While many people will associate Peru with Machu Picchu and the Inca civilization, we cannot forget that for millennia before there were other cultures such as the Nazca and the Moche which inhabited these lands. What we know about these pre-Incan civilizations is based purely on archaeological artefacts, given the absence of a written language. Archaeologists have gained an understanding of this heritage by observing tools, pottery, textiles, and architectural sites which they left behind.
Ancient Peru & Pre-Incan Civilizations
The city of Caral, located in the Supe Valley some 200km north of Lima, was home to the Norte Chico civilization of Peru, and is the oldest known civilization in the Americas, dating back to 3200 BC. This once-thriving urban center boasted an estimated thirty hubs located along the Peruvian coast.
Kotosh is a pre-Columbian site located near the modern city of Huánuco in present-day central highland Peru and is the oldest architectural site of the Andes (3000-1800 BC). Kotosh contains a series of buildings comprising six periods of continuous occupation and is home to the Temple of The Crossed Hands. This epoch was distinguished for the construction of monuments, use of tools and the domestication of animals.
Chavín de Huántar
Chavín de Huántar is listed as a UNESCO heritage site. It contains ruins and artifacts from as early as 1200 BC. It was occupied by the Chavín culture until around 400–500 BCE. The site is located in the Ancash Region, 250km north of Lima. The Chavín people were known for being skilled metalworkers and farmers.
The Moche culture flourished in Peru from around A.D. 100 to A.D. 800. This civilization occupied the region around where Moche and Trujillo are located, in northern coastal Peru. Farming was their trade and they constructed advanced irrigation systems to water their crops.
Between 100 B.C. to A.D. 800, Peru’s Ica Valley was home to the thriving Nazca cultures. These people were skilled craftsmen and produced highly quality textiles and ceramics. The Nazca people created advanced underground aqueduct systems still in operation today.
The Inca Empire
The Inca Empire was the largest in America one of the most powerful in the world until its dissolution. The civilization emerged in the Andean region in the 13th century and flourished until the 1530s when the Spanish conquests began. The Inca Empire withstood the superior weaponry of their invaders until 1572 when Vilcabamba, the last city, was eventually conquered by the Spanish.
The city of Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) in modern-day Peru was the administrative, political, and military center of the empire. From 1438 to 1533, through the military strength of their leaders, the Incas built a massive kingdom which incorporated a large portion of western South America. Under leader Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, the Inca empire extended and occupied large parts of modern Ecuador, Peru, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and north-central Chile, and southern Colombia. This vast territory consisted of 12 million inhabitants and was divided up into what was known in Quechua (the language of the Inca Empire) as TawantinSuyu, or the Four Regions, which centered around Cusco.
The Incas devised agricultural techniques and created advanced road networks which helped to sustain a cohesive state. World renowned Machu Picchu located in the Andes Mountains is the most famous Inca citadel.
Spanish Conquest & Colonial Era
In 1532, Francisco Pizarro led the Spanish conquest of Peru. The Spanish arrived in Cajamarca to take advantage of the Incas who were weakened by a five-year war of succession. The execution of the last free-reigning emperor, Atahualpa, brought an end to 300 years of Inca civilization.
The Spanish conquest changed the landscape forever. In just 150 years, the indigenous population fell from 9 million to 600,000, mostly owing to foreign diseases such as smallpox, measles and flu unknowingly brought by the Spanish against which indigenous people did not have immunity. War, slavery and forced labor also contributed to the quick disintegration of the Inca Empire.
The conquest was also the beginning of the spread of Christianity in South America. Most people were forcefully converted to Catholicism. Churches, monasteries, and shrines were constructed in every city, replacing Inca Temples. In 1535, Pizarro founded the city of Lima on the coast of Peru with the aim of facilitating communication with Panama.
By the 18th Century, many Peruvians were mixed-race, or mestizo, as they had Indian, African, and European ancestors as slaves were brought from abroad. This new generation became increasingly unsympathetic towards Spanish governance. The Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808 led to the loss of Spanish power in Europe. The wars of independence sparked by native uprisings against other Spanish colonies across South America also helped to provide a platform upon which the idea of independence became possible.
However, the Peruvian aristocracy’s conservative mentality, the existence of Spaniards in Peru, the presence of Spanish military power in Lima, and the suppression of Indian uprisings all contributed to Peruvian loyalty towards Spain.
After revolutions in Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, Simón Bolívar – who had liberated the northern part of South America – assumed power in Peru to carry on the struggle for liberation. Eventually in 1824, Spanish power was broken and Peru’s independence ensured.
Following independence, Peru was involved in several territorial disputes with its neighbors. Peru and Bolivia were involved in a four-year war with Chile known as the ‘War of the Pacific’ from 1879-1893. Chile’s victory led to Peru giving up the Tarapaca province. Military coups, political turmoil, and radical reforms characterized the country for the next several decades before the signing of peace accords led borders to be established with Ecuador and Chile respectively in the late 1990s.
The 1980’s and 1990’s in Peru were characterized by reigns of terrorism. El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), a terrorist movement during the final two decades of the 20th century, rallied indigenous people from the countryside and poorer areas to engage in terrorist acts against civilians and the government and sought to restore the Maoist ideologies as a model for their own revolutionary movement. Alberto Fujimori’s conservative government waged war against the guerrilla group, and its leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992, and the group abated.
Important Historical Events in Peru
3000–1800 BC – First known urban settlement emerges at Caral coastline. Cotton textiles appear.
800–300 BC – Chavín culture thrives on trade routes crossing Andes. Textiles, metallurgy, and stone carving materialize.
300 BC–AD 600 – Nazca and Moche cultures established on the south and north coasts. Farming techniques and irrigation invented by Moche, while Nazca culture designed aqueducts.
The Inca Empire 1438–1533 – Largest empire America emerged in the Andean region in the 13th century and flourished until the 1530s.
1532-33 – Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro defeat the Incas with its capital Lima established in 1535.
1824 – Peru gains independence from Spain. It is the last Spanish colony in South America to do so.
1869 – Spain formally recognizes Peruvian independence.
1879-83 – Chile defeats Peru and Bolivia during the Pacific War. Peru subsequently loses territory in the south to Chile.
1980 – Shining Path guerrillas begin armed struggle.
1992 – Shining Path leader arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.