Origins of Human Civilization
Human life in Peru, indeed all over the Americas, is a relatively recent event made possible when the last ice age allowed human settlers to cross the Bering land bridge that connected present-day Russia to Alaska between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. Another theory, based on Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s raft expedition in the mid-20th century, suggests that early migration may also have been possible from the Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific. Either way, the first evidence of human civilization in Peru has been dated to as early as 20,000 B.C. at Pikimachay Cave outside of Ayacucho, where arrowheads, animal skeletons, and carbon remains were found.
These first human groups began domesticating Andean camelids and cuys (guinea pigs) as early as 7000 B.C., establishing small hunter-gatherer villages a thousand years later. The nomadic tribes followed animal migration patterns, exchanging mountain winter for the warmer coastal summers. Potatoes were first cultivated around 6000 B.C. in the Lake Titicaca region. Around 2900 B.C. humans began to plant crops such as manioc, quinoa, lima beans, and cotton, establishing Peru’s long-standing agricultural tradition.
Caral, the Oldest City
With the establishment of agriculture and the domestication of livestock, the first cities in all of the Americas were built in Peru. The most impressive example of monumental architecture during the Formative Period (2700–1000 B.C.) is Caral, considered the oldest city of the Americas. Situated 120 kilometers north of Lima, this complex urban center was built at the same time as similar ones in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Radiocarbon dating of plant fibers indicate that Caral was built in 2627 B.C.—1,000 years before the Olmecs established settlements in Mesoamerica.
Excavations made from 1994 onward by Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady have unveiled 20 stone-built structures featuring six pyramids and many artifacts, including woven religious offerings known as ojos de Dios, “God’s eyes.” The varying sizes of the homes found suggest clear class distinctions within a hierarchical society, where religion was used as a means to ensure social cohesion and control. About 3,000 people probably lived in Caral at its height. Caral became a model for other religion-inspired urban centers in Peru.
Chavín, the Unifier
Considered the South American counterpart of China’s Shang or Mesopotamia’s Sumerian civilizations, Chavín flourished around 900 B.C. during the First or Early Horizon era (1000 B.C.–A.D. 200). Chavín managed to unite coastal, highland, and eastern lowland societies with its powerful religious ideology.
The Chavín built an elaborate stone temple at Chavín de Huántar, southeast of Huaraz, decorating it with finely carved stone sculptures and elaborate iconography. These figures depict their worship of a supreme feline deity—the jaguar—as well as other creatures such as snakes, caimans and natural spirits.
Chavín could have been an Andean oracle controlled by a powerful high-priest elite that relied on San Pedro cactus and other hallucinogens to interact with supernatural forces. This oracle presumably attracted thousands of travelers and pilgrims all the way from Ecuador in the north to the southern Andean region. The discovery of strombus shell trumpets and the highly valued spondylus, which are only found off the coasts of Ecuador, strengthen this theory.
Despite being known for its brilliant and innovative metallurgists, builders, and strategists, Chavín’s influence began to fade around 300 B.C. The influence, however, would resonate through Peru’s civilizations for the next thousand years.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition