A variety of cultures sprang up to take the place of the Chavín. On the north coast, the Moche (220 B.C.–A.D. 600) began building the Huaca de la Luna, a stepped adobe pyramid south of present-day Trujillo. Highly militaristic and religious, the Moche spread throughout Peru’s northern coast. They are best known for finely crafted metallurgy and ceramics, including artifacts recovered from the Lord of Sipán’s intact tomb and the tomb of a tattooed priestess discovered at Huaca Cao Viejo in El Brujo, north of Trujillo.
On the south coast, the Nasca (100 B.C.–A.D. 700) began making elegant weavings from cotton and camelid fiber that are considered today the most advanced textiles produced in pre-Columbian America. Their complex cosmography is evident in the Nasca Lines, giant etchings in the desert floor that were likely once used for rain-inducing ceremonies. The Nasca also built Cahuachi, a large temple complex built around A.D. 100 that was probably a pilgrimage site.
In the southern Andean region, the Tiahuanaco (A.D. 200–1000) built an elaborate stone urban and ceremonial center on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. They also developed a system of raised-bed farming that allowed them to cultivate crops despite the area’s freezing temperatures. The perfect monumental architecture, witnessed at the Tiahuanaco archaeological site in present-day Bolivia, laid the base for Inca architecture nearly a thousand years later.
Though influences from the Chavín and Tiahuanaco had spread throughout Peru’s highlands, the Huari culture (A.D. 600–1100) was the first in South America to establish a true empire. They also built the first well-populated cities, like their capital, Huari, north of Ayacucho. This capital covered nearly 300 hectares with aqueducts, warehouses, temples, and elaborate mausoleums for storing mummies. Archaeologists believe 70,000 people lived here comfortably.
Around A.D. 650 the Huari spread south toward the Tihuanaco culture near Lake Titicaca and Cusco, where they built the huge walled city of Pikillacta. The city spreads across 47 hectares of rolling grasslands and contains a maze of walled stone enclosures of the city and elaborate stone aqueducts.
In the south, near Arequipa, the Huari built the remarkable stone fortress of Cerro Baúi atop a sheer-sided mesa. The Huari spread as far north as the edge of the Moche capital near present-day Trujillo and built a walled city near Huamachuco, in the highlands above Trujillo.
By the time the empire faded around A.D. 900, the Huari had left an indelible pattern of organization over Peru that would be repeated in larger scale by the Inca.
The Kingdoms of the Late Horizon
Once again, as happened after the Chavín culture, Peru splintered into various independent kingdoms after the fall of the Huari. The most important of these were spread along the coast and included the Chimú, Sicán, and Ica-Chincha cultures.
The Chimú built their mud city, Chan Chan, north of Trujillo and a short distance from the adobe stepped platforms built earlier by the Moche. Chan Chan is the largest city ever built by Peru’s pre-Hispanic cultures, and its walled plazas, passageways, temples, and gardens spread over nearly 20 square kilometers. Over time, the kingdom would spread along the coast of Peru from Chancay, a valley north of Lima, to the present-day border with Ecuador.
As the Chimú were flourishing, other descendants of the Moche culture known as the Sicán were building adobe pyramids at Batán Grande, farther north near Chiclayo. Discoveries of royal Sicán tombs there in 1991 revealed a wealth of gold masks, scepters, and ceremonial knives, along with elegant jewelry made from spondylus shell imported from Ecuador. After a devastating El Niño flood destroyed the center, the Sicán began building even larger pyramids a bit farther north at Túcume, which remains an enigmatic and largely unexcavated site today. By 1350, the Sicán culture was conquered by the Chimú.
Peru’s south coast was dominated by the Ica-Chincha kingdom, which spread along Peru’s southern desert valleys. This culture developed elaborate aqueducts for bringing water from the mountains under the desert floor. The ceremonial center of La Centinela, close to Chincha, was an adobe complex painted with sparkling white gypsum and decorated with ornamental friezes.
During this time, other cultures flourished throughout the highlands. The largest of these was the Chachapoya, a mysterious federation of city-states that spread across the cloud forests of northeastern Peru. The Chachapoya’s most celebrated city is Kuélap, a stone citadel perched atop a sheer limestone bluff, but there are dozens of other major city sites.
Other cultures included the Caxamarca near present-day Cajamarca, the Huanca and Chancas in the central highlands, and the Colla and Lupaca near Lake Titicaca. One of these groups, almost too small to mention, was a diminutive tribe of highlanders in the Cusco area known as the Inca.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition