The pre Columbian Civilisations of South America

This prints onto 7 A4 pages.
Mochica, Chimu, Sican, Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca ~ plus Amazonia

It is thought that humans have been in the Americas since 12,000 – 18,000 years BC. The earliest human artefacts found so far in the Americas are from Chile and date to around 11,000 BC. Evidence for agriculture dates to around 7,000 BC. The earliest ceramics yet found date from 6,000 BC and are from Amazonia. By the 15th century AD most of the Americas were quite heavily populated. In total the population of the Americas in pre Colombian times is estimated to have stood at around 40 million people; it may have been higher. Three-quarters of these peoples were in Mesoamerica and South America.
The Andes are a volcanically active region and the mountains and the hills and coastal plains are subject to earthquakes as well as El Nino/La Nina events.

This region holds a wide variety of often challenging environments and climatic regions. Under normal conditions during El Nino events the northern Peruvian coastal plains often suffer from floods, whilst further south on the Altiplano, where
Lake Titicaca is situated, the area is often afflicted by severe droughts.

Climate: The Pacific and Atlantic flank South America's western and eastern coasts. On its western side the thin longitudinal mountain chain of the Andes stretches from Columbia and Venezuela in the north, down to the high snow capped peaks of southern Chile and Argentina in the south. The Andes creates a high barrier that not only has its own climatic zones, but also shapes climate elsewhere in the continent.
The Andes receives most precipitation on its western flank, brought by Pacific winds; this precipitation makes the Andes the source of most of the waters that feed the rivers, both to its east and west.
Viewed from space the South America continent becomes markedly greener towards its north and north-east. The Amazon basin is shaped like a gigantic bowl, into which many rivers flow; the tropical
Amazon rainforest covers a vast area. Although rains can fall throughout the year, the Amazon has a pronounced rainy season (This causes seasonal flooding, many homes are built on stilts or on rafts.); if these rains fail to arrive (particularly if year-on-year) then drought conditions are produced.
Noredeast province is the most easterly region of Brazil. This area's short rainy season arrives when the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone migrates south during March to April. This region also suffers severe drought if the rainy season fails to arrive; this happens when there are sea surface temperature differences, between the two hemispheres, in the Atlantic ocean; this causes the position of the  Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITZ) to shift.

To the south-east of the Andes are lands in its rain shadow; Patagonia and the Pampas lowlands of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, are dryer than the Amazon basin. Between the Andes and Pacific Ocean is one of the world's driest places, the Atacama Desert. This desert is dominated by the persistent sinking air of the south-east Pacific anticyclone, which prevents warm, moist air from rising and forming clouds; the sea surface temperatures off the coast remain too cool to generate convective clouds that would produce rains.

Civilisation began in the Andes and on the Peruvian coastal plains earlier than in Mesoamerica, at around 3,000 BC. A great many people also lived further east and south, in Amazonia in particular.

Below is a brief introduction to the peoples, cultures and cities that existed between the first and sixteenth centuries AD - to help you get your bearings in time and place.

The Mochica (Moche), Chimu, Sican and Inca states were all located south of the equator, in a vast region encompassing
Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

These civilisations all came to prominence after 1000 AD following the collapse of earlier highland Tiwanaku (aka Tiahuanaco) and Wari (aka Huari) empires following a prolonged megadrought between 1000 and 1150 AD.

The Moche, Chimu and Sican cities were located on the long strip of arid coastal plains that stretches down the west coast of South America. These lie between the Pacific and the long Andes mountain range.

At the northern end of these plains rainfall is 8 inches (200mm) per year, the amount declines the further south you go; the southernmost part of the plains only receive 1/10th inch (5mm) per year.

Around 50 major river valleys cross these plains and were the focus for settlement. The main building material was adobe; using adobe and cane these civilisations built some of the largest adobe structures the world has ever seen. Pyramids were the main ceremonial structures.The two Moche pyramids Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna are the biggest; and still being excavated today.

The largest fertile area is the Lambayeque Valley and river delta, location of the Sican state. (Today it’s known as the La Libertad district.) Another was the Moche Valley that was the centre for two major civilisations: the Moche and Chimu.

From the
Lambayeque Valley it was a comparatively short journey through the tropical forests to reach the highlands. It was the ideal location for any trading empire; trade links almost certainly extended down from the Andes into the Amazon basin.
The plains of the Lambayeque delta holds about one third of all the coastal land that can be irrigated by river waters. Sea fogs also helped irrigation. There is evidence that as well as developing raised fields, irrigation systems and canals; the plains' peoples also built flood defences; they had good reason to fear floods. The fields supported crops of potato and other root crops, maize, beans and cotton. Reed boats were used for fishing. Reeds were also used in building, basket making and for thatch. Seaweed and sea-bird guano were valuable fertilisers - and trade goods.

By the first millennium the coastal plains peoples had mastered cultivating many varieties of cotton, used by them to produce textiles and fabrics; these, along with fish, maize, guano and marine shells were a mainstay of their rich economies. Commerce with the highlands and other regions was highly developed

The Peruvian coastal waters are one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. The peoples of the coastal plains used highly sophisticated reed boats and fishing nets woven from cotton fibres to catch anchovy and other fish that are abundant in the cold offshore waters. (Note: La Nina's bring cold upwelling waters to the coastal waters.)

The fish were used for more than just food, they also were a rich fertiliser for the fields; and an important trade item with the highlands. (Note: El Nino's bring warmer waters to the coast, this kills the nutrients that feed the phytoplankton that the anchovy feed on; a majority of the fish die these years.)

Shellfish were a useful food and highly prized as decoration, the Spondylus Princeps in particular. (The Inca valued Spondylus shells above gold.)
In the high Andes mountains around three hundred varieties of potato and other root crops provided staple food items. Alpaca and llama were domesticated (herded) for wool, milk, meat and oil and also used as pack animals.
The Andes provided two distinct environments that produced civilisations.
In the northern highlands the Wari, and later the Inca, developed a system of agriculture by creating terraces of fields on the slopes of steep sided valleys.
(e.g.image on left)

These were highly practical, as well as using available fertile land the terraces prevented soils being washed away and also helped regulate the flow of water down the slopes. Cultivation at the bottoms of the valleys would have been vulnerable to floods washing away both crops and soil.
 Further south, on the high Andean Plateau (the Altiplano) of what is now Peru and Bolivia, the pre-Inca city state of Tiwanaku was established in 500 AD, close to Lake Titicaca, on the south-eastern end of the lake. Lake Titicaca lies 12,500 feet (3,800m) above sea level and is 118 miles (190km) long and 50 miles (80km) wide.

Agriculture here supported a city and society numbering around 170,000 people. Tiwanaku was one of the two great kingdoms that dominated the Peruvian Andes and plains. The Tiwanaku farmed large areas of land around Lake Titicaca by creating raised fields, irrigated by water brought through a network of canals. These canals not only supplied water, they also absorbed heat during the day; as water loses heat more slowly than land this warm water provided a form of thermal thermal insulation against frosts. The meeting of air, land and water at different temperatures also produced low lying mists that helped irrigate the crops.

All the highland civilisations developed stone-masonry to a very high level and mined and worked minerals such as silver, gold, copper etc.
These were traded with the coastal plains societies.

The pre Columbian civilizations of the coastal plain

The Mochica (Moche) state was centred on the Moche valley, it also ruled the huge Lambayeque river valley, 240 miles away. The Mochica was a militaristic society, their capital was Cerro Blanco. (This has two large adobe pyramids ~ Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna.) After surviving massive flooding, they endured a long drought period - 563 to 594 AD - when the rivers dried up  They relocated further inland and established two more cities, Pampa Grande and Galindo. Between 636-645 AD another drought afflicted the area, covering fields with sand. In 750 AD another massive flood struck the cities. The Mochica culture collapsed.

Another plains cultures from this time were the Nazca. The Nazca were located further south in the very arid Pampa region, along the Nazca river between 400-600 AD.

The Nazca are best known for the immense figures of animals, birds and people drawn on the desert plains. Figures so immense that some shapes can only be made out from the air.
The Nazca first drew representations of animals and birds, but later geometric shapes.
Current thinking by archaeologists is that some of these immense lines were drawn in order to mark out underground water systems and outlets. It is unlikely the full meaning of these shapes will ever be understood, as the Nazca left no written records, but the entire landscape was clearly of great symbolic importance to them.

The Nazca culture went into decline after 600 AD, eventually becoming absorbed into that of the Wari.


Another smaller culture was the Recuay Culture, 400-600 AD, in the area between the Andean highlands and coastal plains. The Recuay Culture peoples lived in the Callejon de Huaylas Valley of the northern highlands of Peru. Their historical record ends at around 600 AD. There was a prolonged 32 year drought between 562 – 594 AD. This drought may have been the catalyst for the collapse of both the Nazca and Recuay cultures.

The Sican state was centred on the Lambayeque valley in north Peru between 900 and 1370 AD. Following disastrous floods in 100 AD, followed by famine and disease, the Sican were conquered by the Chimu.

Following the destruction of their capital city by flooding, in 1100 AD; the Chimu built an empire that almost matched the later Inca empire. The capital was Chan Chan (the largest Peruvian city built before the Spanish conquest).

They built large fortifications, as at Saccasihuaman and Paramonga, to defend their borders. The Chimu were the first peoples in
South America to use bronze tools and weapons. The Inca conquered the Chimu in 1470 AD.

Much further south along the plains, the Chiribay began expanding from 1100 AD onwards; establishing farms and towns over a sizeable area.

In 1350 AD a major El Nino event occurred, causing such great flooding that it resulted in the deaths of most of their population.

Note: The southernmost coastal plains of
Peru are remarkably arid. One extraordinary feature is that after death and burial a natural mummification process occurs. The bodies of the Chiribaya became desiccated. A great many such ‘mummies’ have been recovered, to the fascination of a watching world.

Recent excavations at another site at Wawakiki, in southern Peru, have revealed another small agricultural culture from this period; this time located on a sea cliff. It seems that by on farming higher ground they escaped the worst effects of flooding.

The pre Columbian civilizations of the Andes

The Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca civilisations were located in the Andes mountains on the high Andean plateau.
The Andean rainy season starts in October and ends in April. The western slopes are semi-arid and only receive rain between January and March. The people had ready access to stone for building. 

The Tiwanaku capital city was on the Bolivian Andean plateau, on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. The Tiwanakucontrolled large areas of what are now Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile. Their contemporaries, the Wari governed most of the Peruvian highlands and northern Peru. The Wari shared a religion and artistic tradition with Tiwanaku.

Three Wari cities are Pikillacta, Cerro Baul and Jincamocco. Their capital was also called Wari and had a population of around 35,000. Many of the roads and buildings later credited to the Inca were built by the Wari, whom by bringing most of Peru under one administration, established a unitary state and paved the way for the vast Inca Empire.

Both these states (Tiwanaku and Wari) declined and collapsed during a prolonged drought. The former inhabitants on Tiwanaku became scattered farming communities organised into 12 Kingdoms known as the Aymara. They were soon absorbed into the Inca empire.

The more northerly Inca (they called themselves Tawantinsuya) empire was founded in a war of conquest at around 1200 AD by a highland warrior culture; taking advantage of the void left by the decline of the Wari.(NB: Inca can also be spelt Inka.)

At its height the Inca Empire ruled an area extending from Ecuador to Argentina, comprising some 12 million peoples. The Inca emperor was considered to be a living incarnation of their sun god.

The mountain city of Cuzco was the Inca capital. The much more famous Inca city of Machu Picchu
was a religious centre and frontier outpost. (Machu Picchu was only rediscovered in 1911 AD.) 

The Inca empire fell, following the invasion of Spanish forces led by Francisco Pizarro, in 1533 AD.

The Spanish war of conquest against the Inca resulted in the capture of all Inca mountain strongholds by
1572 AD.

The pre Columbian Amazonia region

The Amazon basin refers to the area of the Amazon drainage and it tributaries. Amazonia refers to the region bounded by the Andes to the west, the Guiana highlands to the north and the Brazilian highlands to the south. Not all of it is forest, nor is all the forest rainforest. About a third of Amazonia is not forest at all, but savannah. People have lived here for at least the past 8,000 years.

In the tropical forest much of the soil quality is poor, the intense rains and heat erode its surface, wash out its minerals and decompose organic compounds. Once a year the huge rivers flood very large areas, both adding and removing silts and soils. As these floods were predicable the people adapted to them; some homes were built on stilts and even on rafts, seasonal migrations may have occurred.

The Amazon basin is very poor in stone and metals and has few species of large animals (game). The hot, wet conditions encourages decomposition and native peoples here built using wood, palm and reed, wove cloth from plant fibres etc, so few artefacts have survived for archaeologists to recover - other than a lot of ceramics, middens, post holes, burial mounds, some stone artefacts and a few cave paintings. But there is considerable evidence for a great many population centres; some quite large and displaying complex social organisation. Migrations into Amazonia over the millennia, occurred in stages. There were trade links with the high Andean civilisations and between regions within Amazonia.

It is believed that Amazonia was quite densely populated in pre Columbian times; early Spanish accounts also support this. Rivers were the most likely highways for dispersal and transport. The availability of food sources also suggest that the forests could support large populations.

That the forests are still 'virgin' may be a myth; today many anthropologists and archaeologists believe that rather than simply adapting to living in the forest, the native peoples adapted the forest to meet their needs. Trees were planted as wild orchards to provide fruits and nuts close-to-hand (of the plant species that known to have been domesticated in Amazonia, over 70 are trees) jungle farming took place on small plots (slash-and-burn is a post Columbian innovation, stone axes were poor tools for forest clearance), set fires to create clearances, cleared jungle undergrowth and made highly productive terra-preta ('dark soil' in Portuguese) soil to cultivate crops in. The peoples also had extensive knowledge of other food sources in the forests and harvested the 1500 species of fish that live in the rivers.

Terra-preta soil was made in a similar way to how charcoal is made, but by only partially burning (smouldering) plant and domestic waste material, at a lower temperature (rather than slowly burning all of it at a high temperature as with charcoal), then mixing this with small ceramic shards (broken pottery), and adding this to the soil as a fertiliser.

This terra-petra method produces earth that is rich in phosphorus, calcium, carbon and nitrogen etc; it retains moisture and nutrients for a very long time and also produces very high crop yields.

People shaped the modern day Amazon forests and were managing them before Europeans arrived.

Photo of Amazonian natives (Peru) by: Chany 14. Flickr Creative Commons licence.

Further south on the plains and Pampas small communities farmed small plots and foraged wild foods. Some may have been migratory, obtaining food sources from different locations during the year.

Archaeology in South America is still ‘young’, compared to that of western Europe, Egypt, Greece, Italy, the Middle East and India etc. It is likely that there is still much, much more to be discovered about its past in its plains, jungles, highlands and mountains.



Picture credits: Photographs used under Flickr Creative Commons Licence.
The images of adobe walls were taken by: aka_lusi & ik_kil
(I didn't want to spoil these with captions)
Uncredited images: Martintoy, Jungleboy & Weisserstier.
Image below by Martin Toy.
All images: Some Rights Reserved.
My thanks for their generosity in allowing use (non commercial/educational use) under the terms
of a Creative Commons Licence.