People of the Andes...
The ancient cultures of South America


Carpet vendor. Otavalo market, Ecuador
Carpet vendor. Otavalo market, Ecuador

In the cold climate and thin air of the Andes mountains, several civilization have flowrished for thousands of years. Although the Chavin culture was considered the first civilization of South America by scientists - dating back from 900 BC - over the last few decades, Caral manifested itself as the oldest, up and running by 3000 BC according to carbon -14 dating.

Its sophisticated architecture - pyramids and raised platforms - is contemporary with the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt.


With the decline of the Chavin - main site being Chavín de Huántar - two other civilizations raised in Peru between 200 BC and AD 600, the Moche or Mochica and the Nazca cultures. Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna are two magnificent examples of Moche architecture - located about 5 km south of Trujillo city - but they are provably best known for their brilliantly realistic pottery.

At the same point in time, inhabiting a desert region along the southern coast of Peru, the Nazca excelled for their brightly coloured pottery and sophisticated textiles, however, the so called Nazca lines - drawings executed on a massive scale on the coastal plane and best appreciated from the air - are their most remarkable achievement.


From 400 to 1000 AD, two civilizations marked the culture of the Andean highlands, Tiwanaku (Tihuanaco) and Wari. Standing at an altitude of about 12,500 feet above sea level, the Tiwanaku are best known for its massive stone architecture and human figures carved from single blocks of stone, in the region now known as Bolivia, close to lake Titicaca.

The Wari (Huari) was a sophisticated civilization established in the Ayacucho region of Peru, between about AD 550 and 900. They were the first using a terraced field technology and to connect their settlements with an extensive road network, leaving a significant legacy for the Incas when they began their conquest several centuries later.

They also were predecessors in the use of quipu (knot), a counting device consisting of a lengh of rope from which numerous other threads are suspended, as neither of them had a written language to conduct business (meaning crops and heard basically) and to administrate other empire's affairs.


Just before the advent of the Inca Empire, the Andean civilization shifted back to the coastal regions, in the hands of the Sican and Chimú cultures, between 800 and 1470 AD. The Sican - also known as "Lambayeque culture" - settled down the north coast, with Pomac (Batan Grande) as its cultural center, near the city of Chiclayo. In the early 90s, the tomb of the Lord of Sipan was discovered, filled with historical remains, ceramics and jewels.

The Chimu, believed to have grown out of the remnants of the Moche civilization, created the largest adobe city in the world - Chan Chan. Built around 850 CE, it lasted until its conquest by the Inca Empire in 1470. Triangular in shape, the imperial city has 50 / 60-foot walls enclosing ten walled citadels which housed ceremonial rooms, burial chambers, temples, reservoirs and residences. It is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.



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The Inca Empire or Tawantinsuyo didn't last long, just shy of one hundred years, but towards the 1500s it was the largest and richest in pre-Columbian America. Between circa 1428 and 1525 the Inca civilization expanded through Peru, Ecuador, and as far as the Ancasmayo river in Colombia, to the North, and Maule river - in Chile - to the south, including Northeastern Argentina, with the city of Cuzco at its epicenter, in modern-day Peru.

Tawantinsuyo comes from Quechua language and means "Land of four Quarters". It's composed by "Tawantin", group of four, and "Suyu", region or province. Consequently, the four quarters were Chinchaysuyo to the North, Collasuyo to the South, Antisuyo to the East and Condesuyo to the West.

Their fate was sealed with the arrival of Francisco Pizarro in 1532. That began a period of colonialism that lasted for about three centuries - until the early 1800s - when the newly formed republics got finally rid of the conquistadores.


Today, although more than four hundred and fifty years have passed since the conquest of the Incas, many of the beliefs and customs of the pre-Hispanic world remain, despite the efforts or the Catholic church to neutralize them, including the prohibition of the Inti Raymi celebration in 1572 that finally reassumed in 1944 as a theatrical representation.

The Andes are both a physical phenomena and a cultural marvel, because Pachamama - earth-mother - lives on today, providing all the necessities of life, from food to housing to just about everything in between. Pachamama lives not as a legend of some sort, but as a very real being, she is the Earth and force around which all life must be ordered. Offerings are presented to her and even days set aside to worship her.


The Andean civilization is, fortunately, very much alive as it has been for thousands of years now, mainly represented by the Quechua and Aymara cultures at present time. So if you are willing to discover the real people of the Andes, head off to South America and find out what this timeless beauty is all about.



Portrait of an Ecuadorian woman
Portrait of an Ecuadorian woman


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