World History 1 128 - 8.2.2 Early Cultures and Civilizations in South America

South of Mesoamerica and north of the Andes lies a dense tropical jungle that long prevented any regular communication or cultural transmission between the two areas. As a result, the early cultures and civilizations in South America developed in different ways and responded to different environmental factors. Neolithic settlements like Norte Chico in today’s Peru had already emerged by 3000 BCE. However, in the centuries following this, others proliferated in the Northern Highlands as well. These include sites known today as Huaricoto, Galgada, and Kotosh, which were likely religious centers for offering sacrifices. There was also Sechin Alto, built along the desert coast after 2000 BCE. Then, around 1400 BCE, groups in the Southern Highlands area around Lake Titicaca (on the border between Peru and Bolivia) began growing in size after adopting agricultural practices. The construction of a large sunken court in this area around 1000 BCE indicates they had their own sophisticated ceremonial rituals.

Around 900 BCE, the Andes region experienced a transformation when a single society, often called the Chavín culture, expanded across the entire area, opening what archaeologists call the Early Horizon, or Formative, period. The Chavín culture is known for its distinctive pottery style, which spread throughout the entire region and depicted numerous people, deities, and animals in a flowing and balanced manner (Figure 8.19).

A photo of a piece of pottery. The top of the pot is black, thin, smooth, and tall. The bottom is orange and gray colored and is wider than the top and highly decorated with a section projecting out on each side. An image of a serpent shows on the pot with the head at the right, body in the middle, and tail at the left. The middle body parts are raised on the pot with the details of the body. The scales on the neck and a portion of the tail are carved out on the sides of the pot. The body shows scales and spots while the face profile shows an eye, teeth with a fang and nostrils.
Figure 8.19 The Chavín culture produced a distinctive pottery style. This ceramic piece (c. 1000–800 BCE) shows a stylized caiman, an alligator-like reptile species that inhabits parts of Mexico and South America. (credit: “Bottle with caiman” by The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1967/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Read or listen to a short expert description of the Chavín bottle with caiman presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds this item in its collection.

In addition, you can explore a number of other artifacts from the period at the Met website.

The name Chavín comes from Chavín de Huántar, possibly the culture’s most important religious center. This site is more than ten thousand feet high in the Andes Mountains, to the east of the older Norte Chico settlements. Its dominant architectural feature was its large temple complex, which faced the rising sun and included a maze of tunnels snaking through. Deep within the tunnels was a large sculpture of possibly this culture’s chief deity, called El Lanzón (“great lance”) because of its long lance-like shape. The image of El Lanzón mixes both human and animal features, with flared wide nostrils, bared teeth, long fangs on either side of the mouth, and claws protruding from fingertips and toes. The temple was also decorated with many other sculptures of animals, human heads, and deities bearing the features of both, all probably intended to awe residents and visitors alike.

The inhabitants of Chavín de Huántar numbered about twenty-five hundred by 200 BCE as it slipped into decline. The site’s importance lay in its role as a religious or ceremonial site, not as a population center. But by around 400 BCE, the Chavín religion and culture had spread far and wide across the Andes region. Whether these influences were transmitted by trade or warfare is unclear. Eventually, however, they replaced other architectural and artistic styles and burial practices. Innovations in textile production and metalworking in gold, silver, and copper also proliferated around the region. Craftspeople in towns and villages produced textiles and metal objects, and traders moved them from place to place along improved routes and with the aid of llamas as pack animals (Figure 8.20).

A map of the northwestern portion of South America is shown. Blue and gray lines crisscross the land. Blue runs along the coast on the west side and a small blue area is seen in the top northeast corner. In the northwest, the country of Ecuador is labeled and heading south Peru is labeled. Bolivia is labeled in the south and Brazil is labeled in the east. An upside down “Y” shaped section in Peru along the coast is highlighted green indicating “Chavín.” To the north of this green area and to the south of it along the coast are oval areas highlighted orange indicating “Chavín Influence.” In the green area these cities are labeled from north to south: Cajamarca, Chan Chan, Chavín de Huantar, and Pachacamac. In the orange area at the south the city of Nazca is labeled. To its east outside of the orange area the city of Cuzco is labeled.
Figure 8.20 Between about 900 and 200 BCE, the Chavín culture exerted a strong influence over much of what is today coastal and Andean Peru. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Beginning around 200 BCE, the influence of Chavín cultural styles and religious symbols began to wane. This came at a time of increased regional warfare among many groups, evidenced by the increasing use of defensive features like walls around settlements. The broader Chavín-influenced region then fragmented into a number of regional cultures that grew to full-fledged civilizations like the Moche, Nazca, and Tiwanaku (Figure 8.21).

A map of South America is shown, with the Pacific Ocean labeled to the west and the Atlantic Ocean labeled to the east. Blue and gray lines are seen crisscrossing all over the continent. A rectangular area along the west coast on the upper half of the continent is highlighted green and labeled “Moche.” South of that an oval shaped area along the coast is highlighted pink indicating “Nazca.” South of that a large rectangular shaped area along the coast is highlighted orange indicating “Tiwanaku.” In this orange area at the northeast corner a body of blue water is labeled “Lago Titicaca (Lake Titicaca).”
Figure 8.21 The Moche and Nazca civilizations both emerged around 200 BCE in different parts of what had formerly been Chavín areas of influence. The Tiwanaku civilization also traces its roots back to about 200 BCE, but its major building period started around 100 CE. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Moche civilization emerged in northern Peru and made major settlements with large pyramid-style architecture at Sipán, Moche, and Cerro Blanco. Its people were agriculturalists with a keen knowledge of irrigation technology, which they used to grow squash, beans, maize, and peppers. They were also a highly militaristic society; their art depicts warriors in hand-to-hand combat, scenes of torture, and other forms of physical violence (Figure 8.22). The Moche formed a politically organized state with a sophisticated administration system. Their cities and burial practices reflect a hierarchical organization, with powerful divine kings and families of nobles ruling from atop large pyramids. Below these two tiers was a class of many bureaucrats who helped manage the state. Near the bottom of the social order were the large numbers of workers, agricultural and otherwise, who lived in the many agricultural villages controlled by the elite.

An image is shown on beige, bumpy parchment laid on a pale, wooden background. The corners of the paper are torn and faded. An orange serpent runs across the middle of the image with a head on each side. The serpent’s heads show large white fangs, darks eyes, a long snout, and is holding a black object in their paw which shows long talons. The body is decorated with black dots and white stripes. Atop the serpent’s back a scene unfolds with seven people of varying sizes all dressed in short, orange, black and blue robes with capes and wearing black, blue, or orange highly decorated helmets. They wear black shoes, with one wearing red stockings. Their faces are black, orange, and red with large noses, white eyes, and grim expressions. The first two figures are standing on either side of a tall pole with two circles in the middle and baring their teeth at each other holding knives. The next two are facing each other, the taller one on the left taking an orange goblet from the other who is shorter and holding a blue shield. A black and white animal with a tail jumps up toward the shorter figure. Next, a smaller figure stands holding a black and orange object while two orange and red serpent heads appear at his front and two black and red serpents appear coming out the back of his neck. A large man follows clasping his hands with a short man standing on the back of his cape behind him. Below the serpent another scene unfolds with an orange chariot with blue spots supported on a flat serpent with a head on each side and sitting atop two severed heads with black hair. Behind the chariot on the left three figures sit with raised arms toward four long, thin, red and orange projections coming out of the back of the chariot. An orange and red animal with blue stripes sits at the front of the chariot showing whiskers and long talons. Weapons fly over the head of the animal. Next, two sets of figures are shown with serpents coming off their backs hitting a naked orange figure sitting while bleeding on the ground to their right with their arms bound together and a snake like animal over their heads. The first naked figure also has an animal head atop a circle attached to the back of his shoulder. At the end of the row there is a pile of weapons with a shield in front of the weapons.
Figure 8.22 The Moche commanded a highly militaristic state that used war as well as ceremonial violence to subjugate surrounding populations. This colorful reproduction of a scene originally painted on a piece of Moche pottery (300–700 CE) shows a ceremony in which a Moche lord hands a cup to a high priest (top) as bound prisoners endure bloodletting at the hands of their captors (bottom). (credit: “Mural de la cultura Moche” by SCALA/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Far to the south of the Moche, along the dry coast of southern Peru, were the Nazca, whose culture also emerged around 200 BCE. While the terrain there is parched, with rainfall virtually unknown in some areas, the rivers that carry water from the mountains provided the Nazca with sufficient water for irrigation. Unlike the Moche in their large cities, the Nazca people lived mostly in small villages. However, they maintained important ceremonial sites like Cahuachi, where villagers made pilgrimages and witnessed elaborate fertility and other rituals.

Politically, the Nazca may have adopted a type of confederation made up of a number of important families. Apart from many human-altered hills, called huacas, they also left behind hundreds of geoglyphs, large artistic representations imprinted in the dry desert ground. These are sometimes referred to as the Nazca Lines, and they can be either geometric patterns or images of animals like birds, fish, lizards, and cats (Figure 8.23). Some are as large as twelve hundred feet long and were created by clearing stones away from the desert floor to reveal the different-colored ground beneath.

An aerial photo of a green field is shown with roads crisscrossing the entire image. A bird can be seen outlined in white lines with the long, thin, rounded beak pointing to the bottom right of the photo. The wings spread out on the sides, one claw is shown below each wing, and feathers come out the bottom of the image facing to the top left of the photo. No details are seen on the bird.
Figure 8.23 Between 200 BCE and 600 CE, the Nazca in modern southern Peru created massive images of animals and other shapes like this bird by moving rocks to reveal the different-colored desert floor beneath. (credit: “The Condor” by Roger Canals/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Link to Learning

The Nazca Lines in Peru have baffled scholars for many years. Watch this video about the Nazca Lines to learn more about how some are trying to understand these giant geoglyphs today.

Whereas the Nazca lived in the arid coastal desert, the Tiwanaku civilization thrived high in the mountains near Lake Titicaca. Like the Moche and Nazca societies, this culture emerged in the wake of the collapse of Chavín culture around 200 BCE. Beginning around 100 CE, it entered a period of sustained building at its key city of Tiwanaku. There, residents built two large stone structures topped by additional buildings and carved stone artwork. A signature feature of the structures at Tiwanaku is the many “trophy heads” that poke out from among the stone blocks (Figure 8.24). Noting the different facial features on each head, some scholars have concluded that they represent important ancestors of the Tiwanaku elite or possibly the gods of various conquered groups.

A photo of a long wall is shown along a beige sidewalk with brick edges next to a gravely beige road. A bright cloudy sky shows in the top background. The wall shows square and rectangle shaped bricks of various sizes in a variety of shades of red, pink, and orange divided into sections by four rounded rectangular large stones in pink and gray colors. Some stones project out of the wall along the lower portion in white and beige colors. Three large arched stones can be seen inlaid along three sections of the wall. A large brick structure is seen behind the wall as well as some mountains in the far right distance.
Figure 8.24 So-called trophy heads decorate the face of this wall built between the third and sixth centuries CE at Tiwanaku, near Lake Titicaca between Bolivia and Peru. (credit: modification of work “Tiwanaku23” by Alexson Scheppa Peisino (AlexSP)/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

At its height, the city supported perhaps as many as forty thousand people and oversaw at least four smaller cities in the surrounding area. It may even have been the center of a type of imperial system, with colonies on both the Pacific coast and the eastern side of the Andes. To support Tiwanaku and the other related cities, the people irrigated massive fields with a network of canals to grow potatoes. They also raised domesticated llamas and used them as pack animals for long-distance trade.

Tiwanaku survived until about 1000 CE and may have declined as the water level in Lake Titicaca rose to flood its farmland. The other civilizations of this period—the Moche and the Nazca—had disappeared long before, between 500 and 600 CE, for reasons that likely included environmental transformations. Other Andean civilizations emerged in their wake, including the Wari of the highlands of southeastern Peru and the Chimor of coastal Peru. These later groups built upon the earlier cultures’ innovations in agriculture, art, manufacturing, and trade. While Wari declined around 800 CE, Chimor survived into the fifteenth century. It was only in the 1400s that Chimor was conquered by a new and expanding imperial system, the Inca.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax