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Origins » Wari Civilization › Nazca Civilization › Tairona Civilization › Muisca Civilization » History


Characters and historical events ››

  1. Wari Civilization
  2. Nazca Civilization
  3. Tairona Civilization
  4. Muisca Civilization
  5. Tarascan Civilization
  6. Chimu Civilization
  7. Chan Chan

Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places

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[ 1 ]

Wari Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Wari civilization flourished in the coastal and highland areas of ancient Peru between c. 450 and c. 1000 CE. Based at their capital Huari, the Wari successfully exploited the diverse landscapes they controlled to construct an empire administered by provincial capitals connected by a large road network. Their methods of maintaining an empire and artistic style would have a significant influence on the later Inca civilization.
The Wari were contemporary with those other great Middle Horizon (c. 600 - 1000 CE) cultures centred at Tiwanaku and Pukara. The more militaristic Wari were also gifted agriculturalists and they constructed canals to irrigate terraced fields. The economic stability and prosperity this brought allowed the Wari to implement a combined strategy of military might, economic benefits, and distinct artistic imagery to forge an empire across ancient Peru. Their superior management of the land also helped them resist the 30-year drought period which during the end of the 6th century CE contributed to the decline of the neighbouring Nazca and Moche civilizations.
The Wari were undoubtedly influenced by contemporary cultures, for example, appropriating the Chavin Staff deity -- a god closely associated with the sun, rain, and maize, all so vital to cultures dependent on agriculture and the whims of an unreliable climate. They transformed it into a ritual icon present on textiles and pottery, spreading their own branded iconography and leaving a lasting legacy in Andean art.
The Wari implemented a combined strategy of military might, economic benefits, and distinct artistic imagery to forge an empire across ancient Peru.


The capital at Huari (25 km north of modern Ayacucho) is located at an altitude of 2,800 m and is spread over 15 square kilometres. It was first settled around 250 CE and eventually had a population possibly as high as 70,000 at its peak. Huari shows typical features of Andean architecture: densely packed wall-enclosed rectangular structures which can be further divided into a maze of compartments. The city's walls are massive (up to 10 metres high and 4 metres thick) and built using largely unworked stones set with a mud mortar. Buildings had two or three stories, courtyards were lined with stone benches set in the walls, and drains were stone-lined. The floors and walls of buildings were generally covered with plaster and painted white.
There is little distinction in Wari architecture between public and private buildings and little evidence of town planning. A royal palace has, however, been identified in the northwest section of the city, its oldest area of habitation and called Vegachayoq Moqo. A now ruined temple was located in the Moraduchayuq compound in the southeast of the city. It was built in the 6th century CE and had subterranean parts with the whole structure once painted red. Like other buildings at the site it was deliberately destroyed and ritually buried. The city seems to have been abandoned c. 800 CE for reasons unknown.
Tombs have been excavated at Huari which contained fine examples of Wari textiles. Ceramics are also amongst finds at the site. A royal tomb was discovered in the Monjachayoq zone which consists of 25 chambers on two different levels, all lined with finely cut stone slabs. In addition, a shaft descends to a third level chamber which has the shape of a llama. Finally, a circle chamber was cut out at a fourth level down. The llama-shaped tomb, looted in antiquity, was the royal resting place and dates to 750-800 CE.
Huari was once surrounded by irrigated fields and fresh water ran through the city via underground conduits. Further indicators of prosperity are the presence of areas dedicated to the production of specific goods such as ceramics and jewellery. Precious materials for these workshops and imported goods indicate trade with far-flung places: shells from the coast and Spondylus from Ecuador, for example. The presence of buildings used for storage at Huari and other Wari cities also indicates a centrally controlled trade network spread across ancient Peru.


Another important Wari centre was at Pikillacta, southeast of Huari which was founded c. 650 CE. Located at an altitude of 3250 m, the heart of this administrative and military settlement site was built in a rectangular form measuring 745 x 630 metres and is laid out in a precise geometrical pattern of squares. The interiors of individual compounds are, however, idiosyncratic in layout.
As at other Wari sites, access was strictly controlled via a single, winding entrance. Notable finds at Pikillacta include 40 miniature greenstone figures depicting elite citizens and small figurines (no larger than 5 cm) of transformational shamans, warriors, bound captives, and pumas in copper, gold, and semi-precious stone. The site was abandoned c. 850 - 900 CE and there is evidence of destruction by fire of some buildings and deliberately sealed doorways.
Other important Wari cities were Viracochapampa, Jincamocco, Conchopata, Marca Huamachuco, and Azangaro. There were also purely military sites such as the fort at Cero Baul, which bordered on Tiwanaku territory to the south. These sites were connected to water sources and each other by a system of roads.

Wari Art

Wari art is best evidenced in textile finds which often depict the Staff Deity, plants, the San Pedro cactus flower, pumas, condors, and especially llamas, illustrating the importance of these herd animals to the Wari. Textiles were buried with the dead and those tombs in the dry dessert have been well-preserved. Textiles were multi-coloured, although blue was particularly favoured, and designs were composed of predominantly rectilinear geometric forms, especially the stepped diamond motif. At the same time, despite seemingly regular geometric patterns, weavers often introduced a single random motif or colour change (typically using green or indigo) into their pieces. These could be signatures or an illustration that rules could always have exceptions.
Wari designs eventually became so abstract that figures were essentially unrecognisable, perhaps in a deliberate attempt by the elite to monopolize their interpretation. Abstract figures distorted almost beyond recognition may also be an attempt to represent the shamanic transformation and drug-induced trance consciousness which were part of Wari religious ceremonies.
Popular Wari pottery forms were the double-spouted vessels seen elsewhere in Andean cultures, large urns, beakers, bowls, and moulded effigy figures. Decorative designs were heavily influenced by those used in Wari textile production. The Staff Deity was an especially popular subject for beakers (kero) as were warriors with dart throwers, shields, and military tunics.
Precious metals were also a popular medium for elite goods. Notable finds from a royal tomb at Espiritu Pampa include a silver face mask and breast-plate, gold bracelets, and other jewellery in semi-precious stones such as greenstone and lapis lazuli. Human figures in typical Wari costume - sleeveless tunic and four-cornered hat - were also made in hammered precious metals.

The Wari Legacy

Although the exact causes of Wari decline are not known, theories range from over-extension of the empire to another period of extended drought in the 9th century CE. Whatever the reasons, the region returned to a situation of fragmented polities for several centuries.
The most lasting legacy of the Wari is their artistic style which not only influenced the contemporary Moche but also the later Lambayeque civilization, and later still, the Incas. A large number of the roads built by the Wari were also used by the Incas within their own extensive road system, as were a great number of Wari terraces for agriculture. The capital at Huari was looted in antiquity and again in the 16th century CE by the Spanish.
Re-discovered in the mid-20th century CE, the first excavations began in the 1940's and continue today, gradually revealing the wealth and power once enjoyed by one of the most important of all ancient Andean cultures.
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[ 2 ]

Nazca Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Nazca civilization flourished on the southern coast of Peru between 200 BCE and 600 CE. They settled in the Nazca and other surrounding valleys with their principal religious and urban sites being Cahuachi and Ventilla, respectively. The culture is noted for its distinctive pottery and textiles, and perhaps above all, for the geoglyphs made on the desert floor commonly known as Nazca lines. These can be simple lines, cleared spaces, or animals and figures traced in outline, and, as they cover several kilometres, they are best appreciated from the air.


The Nazca were contemporary with, and then outlasted, the Paracas culture and many Paracas sites have been discovered beneath Nazca settlements. Politically, the Nazca civilization has been described as a collection of chiefdoms occasionally acting in unison for mutual interest rather than as a single unified state. Or as M.E. Moseley puts it, "individuality - with cultural coherence, but without large-scale or integrated power - were Nazca hallmarks". This interpretation is reinforced by the art and architecture of the Nazca which displays common themes across settlements but at the same time there is a general lack of uniform town planning or evidence of centralization. The maximum population of the Nazca has been estimated at 25,000 people, spread across small villages which were typically built on terraced hillsides near irrigated floodplains.
As they developed, the Nazca extended their influence into the Pisco Valley in the north and the Acari Valley in the south. In addition, as llamas, alpaca and vicuna do not survive in the coastal areas the use of their wool in Nazca textiles is evidence that trade was established with highland cultures. In addition, Nazca mummies have been discovered wearing headdresses made with the feathers of rainforest birds, once again, illustrating that goods were traded across great distances.
The Nazca have left a legacy of distinctive imagery on their pottery, textiles, and across the desert floor of Peru.
Graves, often placed up to 4.5 metres deep and accessed via a shaft, are the richest source of Nazca artefacts and reveal many aspects of the culture. Fine pottery and textiles were buried with the dead and with no particular distinction between male and female burials. The deceased is mummified, carefully wrapped in textiles and usually placed in a seated position, skulls sometimes display deliberate elongation, and we know the Nazca wore tattoos. Tombs, especially shaft ones lined with mud bricks, could be re-opened and more mummies added, perhaps indicating ancestor worship. Caches of trophy-heads often accompany the mummy, many showing signs of trephination which allowed several to be strung on a single cord as illustrated in pottery designs. Trophy-heads are also frequently incorporated into textile designs, especially in miniature and as border decoration. There were also burials of what appear to be sacrificial victims. These have the eyes blocked and excrement was placed in the mouth which was then pinned shut with cactus needles. Alternatively, the tongue was removed and kept in a cloth pouch.
Weakened by a generation-long drought in the 5th century CE, the Nazca were eventually conquered by the Wari - who assumed many of their artistic traits - and Nazca settlements, thereafter, never rose beyond provincial status.


Ventilla was the Nazca urban capital and covered over 2 square kilometres (495 acres) and included ceremonial mounds, walled courts, and terraced housing. To fight the ever-present threat of drought the Nazcans built an extensive network of underground aqueducts, galleries, and cisterns in order to ensure a good water-supply during the dry season and minimize evaporation. These were reached by impressive descending spiral ramps and lined with river cobbles.


Founded c. 100 BCE, Cahuachi, on the south bank of the Nazca River, 50 km inland, was a site of pilgrimage and the Nazca religious capital. It was probably first considered sacred because it was one of the few locations with a guaranteed year-round water supply. The lack of domestic architecture indicates it was not used as a place of habitation.
The sacred site covers 11.5 square kilometres (2,841 acres) and has around 40 large adobe mounds which take advantage of natural hills. The largest mound, known as the Great Temple, is over 20 metres high. All of the mounds have an adjoining plaza and are topped by adobe walls. The largest plaza measure 47 x 75 metres. A low wall, 40 cm high, surrounded the main sacred precinct. Posts and postholes across the site suggest canopies protected worshippers from the sun. Textile scenes also suggest that religious gatherings were connected to harvest festivals, and piles of rubbish consisting mostly of pottery shards at the site indicate ritual feasting. This rubbish was deliberately left so that it became a part of the mound. Consequently, the larger the mound, the more it had been used in rituals. Some mounds also contained burials and large pots containing fine textiles given as religious offerings.
More details of the religious ceremonies that may have been carried out at Cauachi are depicted in Nazca art, especially on pottery, and many are scenes involving shamans. These religious figures, in a drug-induced trance, appealed to nature spirits to guarantee favourable conditions for agricultural abundance. Music was an important part of these rites, as is evidenced by the abundance of ceramic drums and panpipes in the archaeological record. The principal Nazca god seems to have been the Oculate Being who is represented in art as a flying deity figure wearing strings of trophy-heads. He is frequently depicted in pottery and textile designs in a horizontal position with streamers flowing from his body. Large staring eyes and a snake-like tongue are other typical features.

Nazca Lines

The Nazca drew geoglyphs and lines across the surrounding deserts and hills which were either stylized drawings of animals, plants, and humans or simple lines which connected sacred sites or pointed to water sources. Their exact purpose is disputed, but the most widely held theory is that they were designed to be walked along as part of religious rites and processions.
The lines were made remarkably easily and quickly by removing the oxidised darker surface rocks which lay closely scattered across the lighter coloured desert pampa floor. Most designs are only visible from the air, but some were made on hillsides and so are visible from the ground.
Lines could be single - both straight and curved - or in groups and could cross each other in complicated networks. The width and length of lines can vary; one of the longest straight lines is 20 km long and the total combined length of Nazca lines has been estimated at over 1,300 km. Those lines used to describe a specific shape are generally composed of a single continuous line. Designs could be geometric shapes or animals such as a hummingbird, spider and even a killer whale. Trees, plants, and flowers were another subject, as were human figures.
The scale of the designs can be huge; many are at least the size of a sports field. They were also made over several centuries and very often newer designs overlap and ignore older ones which would strongly suggest a lack of long-term and unified planning and, therefore, that they were made by different groups at different times and served more than a single purpose.

Nazca Pottery

The Nazca have achieved a reputation for great artistry and their finely worked pottery is an excellent example. Vessels were thin-walled and could take on a wide variety of shapes. Distinctive forms include the double-spouted containers with a single handle and generally bulbous vessels without a flat bottom or base. Bowls, beakers, jars, effigy drums, and panpipes were also common. There were also vessels in the shape of human heads, no doubt inspired by the Nazca practice of taking trophy-heads following battles.
Influenced by the earlier Paracas culture designs, Nazca pottery vessels were decorated with a slip (before firing) to produce a wide array of vividly rendered patterns, gods, shamanic imagery, crustaceans, condors, monkeys, and mythical transformational creatures, especially felines. The Nazca went on to create their own unique style and designs evolved from naturalistic to highly ornamented and then to highly abstract forms. Often the design covers the entire vessel producing a wrap-around three-dimensional effect, even a narrative, for example, with battle scenes. Designs might also exploit the contours of the vessel, for example, a nose on a protruding part. Designs can also overlap each other to create the illusion of space and depth.
Maroon, light purple, and blue-grey were a favourite choice of colours but a very wide range was used, more, in fact, than in any other ancient Andean culture. Backgrounds were usually in white, red, or black. Outlining figures in black was another feature and another example of the Nazca delight in linear design. A final polishing gave the colours a fine shine.

Nazca Textiles & Metalwork

The Nazca were fond of not only wool weaving and embroidery but also of painting plain cotton cloth with an array of colourful images and motifs. Textiles have survived remarkably well, thanks to the extremely dry climate, and they illustrate that Nazca weavers possessed the full range of Andean techniques and employed an astonishing range of colours and shades to produce intricate and detailed designs. Figures were especially popular in designs and most often are depicted participating in harvest scenes which show such foodstuffs as maize and beans. Animals, similar to those in the geoglyphs and pottery designs, were also a popular subject. Looms, spindles, needles, cotton balls, and pots of dyes have all been excavated from Nazca settlements.
Nazca metalworkers beat gold into thin sheets which were cut to create silhouettes. Preferring to keep surfaces smooth and reflective, only a little repoussé work provides sparing decoration. Masks were produced which were worn over the mouth and made the wearer appear to have a golden beard and whiskers. Gold full-face masks, hair plumes, and nose and forehead ornaments were also produced. These gold masks transform the face of the wearer and recall the transformation ceremonies carried out by the shamans who were such a popular subject in Nazca art.
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[ 3 ]

Tairona Civilization

Origin and history
by Prapti Panda

The Tairona civilization - one of the Chibcha family tribes - flourished in northern Colombia between 200 CE and 1600 CE. Like the Muisca of Cundinamarca, the Tairona were known for their expertise in crafting and metallurgy, especially goldsmithing. Primarily occupying the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region in present-day Magdalena, they left behind them a bountiful of archaeological evidence of their lifestyle, which was surprisingly modern as viewed from the perspective of their relative isolation to more developed civilizations.


The Tairona were as skilled in agriculture as they were in metallurgy. Archaeological findings from as early as 200 CE show that they had the knowledge and expertise of terrace farming, canal building and construction of stone foundations. But that is not what they are renowned for; they are remembered for their exceptional war skills, which made them one of the most difficult tribes to be colonized by the Spanish conquistadores, who had successfully been able to overthrow the Inca, the Aztec, and the Maya empire without much effort. The Tairona ended up fighting with the conquistadores for more than 75 years.
Not surprisingly, many Spaniards became admirers and wrote records about this mysterious, all-powerful tribe that could resist western influence. Many chroniclers recorded the Tairona way of life, their trading systems, their religious beliefs, and their apparent lack of interest in the monetary value of precious metals. So it is not very surprising that the Tairona are believed to be related to the Muisca tribe, as they both shared the same system of power division and a belief in the spiritual significance of gold.


The Tairona had to abandon their settlements around mid-17th century CE, and the forests swallowed most of their traces. Still, some remain, a reminder of their remarkable culture.
One of their most famous settlements was Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Locally known as Teyuna, it was founded around 800 CE, 600 years before Machu Picchu. It is one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites in South America. Accessible by a tiring long trek through thick foliage and some 1,200-odd stone steps, it is believed to have housed anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 people. Until now, only a part of the once-magnificent city has been properly excavated. The findings have been extraordinary; about 250 mud and stone terraces that served as platforms for houses, spread across 300,000 square meters of densely vegetated land. More recent excavations have also unearthed a number of intriguing objects; ornaments, gold offerings, pottery, and even musical instruments.
Another site, Pueblito, is located near the Carribean coast. According to research, it contains at least 254 terraces and housed a population of about 3,000 people. In the past, there used to be numerous villages and hamlets strewn throughout the valley, forming a large network that would increase trade and other businesses. In fact, the Tairona were even involved in salt production, as found in Chengue, a small fishing village.


It was the belief of the Tairona that the shamans could escape their body & gain the knowledge of other creatures, Which inspired their metallurgy such as the famous 'Bat Man' figurine.
The Tairona had a ruling system based on religion. Their rulers were a part of Shaman elite that claimed to be able to control the forces of nature, the cosmos and all human thoughts and actions. One of the chief beliefs of the Tairona people was in the process of transformation. The process is a typical shamanistic power exchange. By cleansing their mind and body, going through long periods of fasting, and exhaustive ritual dances, they believed the shamans' souls could transcend the mortal human condition and acquire knowledge from unknown regions of the cosmos which would be inaccessible to anyone else. Hence the shamans were considered the heads of the tribe and were treated with a great deal of respect, being responsible for gathering armies, controlling agriculture, looking out for the wellbeing of the Tairona, and even supervising the barter trade network. It was the belief of the Tairona that the shamans could escape their body and gain the knowledge of other creatures, which inspired their metallurgy. Most of the ornaments found in their settlements are believed to be of people turning into fierce animals such as the famous 'Bat Man' figurine that depicts a shaman slowly turning into a bat.


Like most tribes thriving in that period, the Tairona's religious beliefs influenced a lot of their artwork and metallurgy. Like the 'Bat Man,' most of their pendants and breastplates boasted of men apparently turning into fearsome creatures, especially birds of prey, crocodiles, and snakes. These ornaments not only represented the status of the person wearing them but also were symbols of the powers he was supposed to be possessing.
Transformation was a concept that all tribes of the Chibcha family believed in at that time, and they did their best to implement it. For example, since bats were recognized as one of the most powerful animals then, the Tairona did their best to make themselves look like them. As a result, the costumes that were worn for symbolizing this transformation have been found in the tombs of leading dignitaries of the Tairona period. Researchers at the Banco de la Republica, Colombia, say, "The ornamentation on their metal visors was an allusion to the membranes inside the animal's ear; the cylindrical nose rings raised the nose to make it look like the nostril of certain bat species, and the sub-labial ornaments imitated the fleshiness of the animal's lower lip."
Unlike what most people tend to believe, ancient Colombia was not only a hub for excellent goldwork but also for ceramics. The earliest ceramic objects excavated from the area occupied by the Tairona were dated around 2500 BCE, even though they are believed to have flourished only after 200 CE. Another link to the Muisca seems to be the similarity in goldwork. Both of these Chibcha-speaking tribes had the same variety of offerings for their deities and even had almost the same kind of tunjos. Tunjos are figurines made from tumbaga, which is a mixture of gold, copper, and silver. They generally depict the tribespeople going about their daily life. Another interesting aspect of the modernity of the Tairona is that scholars believe the tribespeople had freedom of divorces. Also, their religious practices were very similar to their present-day counterparts, the Kogui, and went on for days, primarily involving deliberation, coca chewing, and deep meditation.
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[ 4 ]

Muisca Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Muisca (or Chibcha) civilization flourished in ancient Colombia between 600 and 1600 CE. Their territory encompassed what is now Bogotá and its environs and they have gained lasting fame as the origin of the El Dorado legend. The Muisca have also left a significant artistic legacy in their superb gold work, much of it unrivalled by any other Americas culture.

Society & Religion

The Muisca lived in scattered settlements spread across the valleys of the high Andean plains in the east of modern-day Colombia. Important annual ceremonies related to religion, agriculture, and the ruling elite helped unite these various communities. We know that such ceremonies involved large numbers of participants and included singing, incense burning, and music from trumpets, drums, rattles, bells, and ocarinas (bulbous ceramic flutes). The communities were also linked by trade and there was even a movement of skilled craftsmen, especially goldsmiths, between Muisca cities.
The Muisca took trophy heads from their defeated enemies and they sometimes sacrificed captives.
Founded by the legendary figure of Bochica, who came from the east and taught morality, laws, and crafts, the Muisca were ruled by chieftains aided by spiritual leaders. The Muisca controlled and defended their territory with such weapons as clubs, spear-throwers, arrows, and lances. Warriors also had protective helmets, armoured breast plates, and shields. The Muisca took trophy heads from their defeated enemies and they sometimes sacrificed captives to appease their gods. However, warfare was highly ritualized and probably small-scale. There is ample evidence, for example, that commodities such as gold, shells, feathers, animal skins, tobacco, salt, coca leaves and other foodstuffs were traded with neighbouring Colombian cultures such as the Tolima and Quimbaya. Precious goods would have been reserved for the Muisca elite, as was hunting and meat.
Idolizing the sun, the Muisca also had a special reverence for sacred objects and places such as particular rocks, caves, rivers, and lakes. At these sites they would leave votive offerings (tunjos) as they were considered a portal to other worlds. The most important Muisca gods were Zue the sun god and Chie the moon goddess. We also know of Chibchacum, the patron of metalworkers and merchants. The most common type of offerings to the gods was foodstuffs along with typical tunjo of snakes and flat male, female, and animal figures rendered in gold alloy which were placed at sacred sites. Elite members of society could also be buried at such religiously significant places, first being dried and then wrapped in many layers of fine textiles, finally placed in a tomb seated on their seat of office, a small stool or tianga, and surrounded by the precious goods they had enjoyed in life.

El Dorado

The Muisca today are most famous for the legend of El Dorado or 'The Gilded One'. A Muisca ceremony held at Lake Guatavita, actually only one of many kinds, involved a ruler being covered in gold dust who was then rowed on a raft to the centre of the lake where he leapt into the waters in an act of ritual cleansing and renewal. Muisca subjects would also throw precious objects into the lake during the ceremony, not only gold but also emeralds.
The Spanish, on hearing this story, allowed their imagination and lust for gold to leap beyond the bounds of reality and soon a legend arose of a magnificent city built with gold. Naturally, as it never existed in the first place, the city was never found and even the lake has stubbornly refused to reveal its secrets despite several costly attempts over the centuries.

Muisca Art

Figures in Muisca art are often transformational, for example, a man with elements of a bird which may represent the hallucinatory visions of shamans induced by the consumption of coca leaves or yopo (crushed seeds). Animals such as bats, felines, snakes, alligators, and amphibians were also popular subjects. The Muisca did not restrict their artistic output to gold but also created fine textiles which were of wool or cotton, and the latter could also be painted.
Typical Muisca designs include spirals and other geometric, inter-locking forms. Also produced were ceramics (including clay figures) and carved semi-precious stones. The Muisca women were not only capable weavers of cloth but were equally skilled in basket-weaving and feather-work. Most examples have been discovered in tombs and so escaped the avarice of the European invaders in the early 16th century CE and later tomb robbers.
For the Muisca, gold was though the material of choice as it was valued for its lustrous and transformational properties and its association with the sun. It was not used as a currency, but rather as an artistic medium. Gold was mined from exposed veins and panned from mountain rivers. Gold and its alloy tumbaga (a mix of gold and copper with traces of silver) were used to make tunjos such as figures and masks, coca containers (poporos) with lime dippers, and also exquisite jewellery - typically pectorals, earrings, and nose studs. The Muisca goldsmiths employed a wide range of techniques in their work such as lost-wax casting, depletion gilding which gives a two-tone finish, repoussè, soldering, granulation, and filigree. Gold was also made into thin sheets by hammering on round stone anvils or carved stone moulds using an oval hammer of stone or metal.
Perhaps one of the finest Muisca pieces, and solid evidence of the El Dorado ceremony, is a gold alloy raft on which stand figures, one of whom is larger and, wearing a headdress, is undoubtedly the 'Gilded One'. It was discovered in a cave near Bogotá and was a tunjo. The piece is 10 x 20 cm with the main figure being 10 cm high and it now resides, along with many of the finest surviving Muisca pieces, in the Museo del Oro of the Banco de la República, Bogotá, Colombia.
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[ 5 ]

Tarascan Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Tarascan civilization (also known as the Purépecha, after their language) dominated western Mexico and built an empire that would bring it into direct conflict with that other great Mesoamerican civilization of the Post-classic period, the Aztecs. Second only to the Aztec empire, the Tarascans themselves controlled, from their capital of Tzintzúntzan, an empire of over 75,000 square kilometres.

Cultural Origins

The history of the Tarascans has been pieced together from the archaeological record and local traditions, principally those related in the Relación de Michoacán written by the Franciscan friar Jeronimo de Alcala in the mid-16th century CE. Whilst the Tarascans owed a cultural debt to the earlier Bajio and Michoacán tribal civilizations, the Purépecha culture in fact had a history of over two millennia. The Tarascans were based in the central and northern Michoacán (meaning 'place of the fish masters') around the lake basins of Zacapu, Cuitzeo and Pátzcuaro. From as early as the Late Pre-classic period (150 BCE - 350 CE), Purépecha society developed into a more sophisticated culture with a high degree of political centralisation and social stratification by the Middle Post-classic period (1000/1100-1350 CE). According to the Relación the most important tribe were the Wakúsecha (from the Chichimec ethnic group), whose chief Taríakuri established the first capital at Pátzcuaro around 1325 CE.
The territory controlled by the Tarascans was now double the extent of previous generations and the production and trade of maize, obsidian, basalt and pottery correspondingly increased. The rising level of the lake in the Pátzcuaro basin also meant many low-lying sites were abandoned and the competition for resources became ever more fierce. So too, in the higher lands of the Zacapu, population concentration greatly increased so that 20,000 people inhabited just 13 sites. This period was marked by an increase in local state rivalries and a general instability amongst the ruling elite but the foundations of the great Tarascan empire were now in place.
The Tarascans managed to remain unconquered by the mighty Aztec empire.


From the late Post-classic period (1350-1520 CE, also known as the Tariacuri phase in this context) the Tarascan capital and largest settlement was at Tzintzúntzan on the northeast arm of Lake Pátzcuaro. The Tarascans also controlled, through a highly centralised and hierarchical political system, some 90 plus cities around the Lake. By 1522 CE the population of the basin was as high as 80,000, whilst Tzintzúntzan boasted a population of 35,000. The capital was the administrative, commercial, and religious centre of the Tarascan empire and seat of the king or Kasonsí. Extensive irrigation and terracing projects were carried out in order to make such a large population sustainable on local agriculture but significant imports of goods and material remained a necessity.
A network of local markets and a system of tributes ensured there was a sufficient quantity of basic goods but there was also a ready supply of pottery, shells and metals (particularly gold and silver ingots), and also labour, to meet demand. At these busy marketplaces fruit, vegetables, flowers, tobacco, prepared food, craft goods, and raw materials such as obsidian, copper, and bronze alloys were bought and sold. The state controlled the mining and smelting of silver and gold (in the Balsas Basin and Jalisco), and the production of goods made from these precious materials came via skilled craftsmen who probably resided in the palace complex of Tzintzúntzan. There is some evidence of independent gold and silver production in the south-east and western regions, compatible with evidence of secondary and tertiary administrative centres. In addition, the Tarascans imported turquoise, rock crystal, and green stones whilst from local tribute they acquired cotton, cacao, salt and exotic feathers. The Tarascans were themselves the most important producers of tin-bronze, copper and copper-alloy bells (used in ceremonial dances) in Mesoamerica.
The Tarascan state also controlled land allocation, copper and obsidian mines, forests, the fishing industry and craft workshops in general. However, the degree of control is unclear and local communities and traditional tribal leaders may well have granted royal access to these resources. These diverse ethnic groups within the empire, although subject politically to Tzintzúntzan, also maintained their own language and local identities but in times of war their regular tribute to their Tarascan overlords was augmented by the supply of warriors.
According to the Relación de Michoacán the Tarascan nobility was divided into three groups: royalty, upper and lower nobility (the Wakúsecha elite). Royalty resided at the capital and the sacred site of Ihuátzio, which in fact had been the previous Tarascan capital. The funeral of one Tarascan king is described in the Relación where the dead ruler's entourage are sacrificed to accompany him in the land of the dead - 40 male slaves, his seven favourite female slaves, his cook, wine-bearer, toilet attendant and lastly, the doctor who had failed to prevent his death.


The Tarascan religion was led by a Supreme High Priest who was the head of a multi-layered priestly class. Priests were easily identified by the tobacco gourd they wore around their necks. Tarascan religion claimed the Pátzcuaro basin as the centre of the cosmos, or at least its power centre. The universe had three parts: the sky, the earth, and the underworld. The sky was ruled by the most important deity, the sun god Kurikaweri, whose wife was Kwerawáperi, the earth-mother goddess. Their most important child was Xarátenga, the moon and sea goddess.
The Tarascans also seem to have taken earlier local divinities and metamorphosed or combined these with wholly original Tarascan gods. In addition, the gods of conquered tribes were usually incorporated into the official Tarascan pantheon. Kurikaweri was worshipped by burning wood and offering human sacrifice and blood-letting, and pyramids were built in honour of the Tarascan gods, five at Tzintzúntzan and five at Ihuátzio. A peculiar feature of the Tarascan religion was the absence of such common Mesoamerican gods as a rain god (Tlaloc) and a feathered serpent god (Quetzalcoatl). Neither did the Tarascans use the 260-day calendar but they did employ the 18-month solar year with 20-day months.

Art & Architecture

A unique feature of Tarascan late Post-classical architecture is the monumental structures which combine rectangular and circular stepped pyramids known as yácata. These are shaped like keyholes but there were also regular rectangular pyramids. At Tzintzúntzan five such structures rest on an enormous platform 440 m long. The yácata were originally faced with close-fitting slabs of volcanic stone and excavations inside them have revealed tombs rich in artefacts. In front of the yácata sculptures were placed for receiving sacrificial offerings (chacmools) as in many other Mesoamerican cultures. At Ihuátzio there is also an example of a court for the Mesoamerican ballgame.
Tarascan pottery was also distinctive with its spouted jars with spur-shaped handles (sometimes taking the form of animals and plants), tripod bowls, miniature vessels and pipes with long stems, all highly decorated. The Tarascans were also highly skilled metalworkers, especially in silver and gold. In addition, they were expert workers of obsidian, notably earspool and labret jewellery, which was covered in gold sheet and inlaid with turquoise.

The Aztec Threat

The contemporary expanding empires of the Tarascans and their southern/western neighbours the Aztecs eventually came into direct competition for territory and resources. Indeed, in a sense these two great Mesoamerican powers counter-balanced each other. The Tarascans, perhaps employing subterfuge and sabotage, did force the Aztecs to within 50 miles of Tenochtitlan in the 1470s CE which led to an agreement on a north-south frontier between the Lerma and Balsas rivers protected by fortifications placed strategically to command the vulnerable valleys. With this border secured the Tarascans continued their policy of expansion elsewhere. The best archaeological source of Tarascan military power and innovation is the fortress of Acambaro. Fortresses such as this one, the military strategies they employed and the use of metal weapons help to explain how the Tarascans managed to remain unconquered by the mighty Aztec empire.
Despite the hostilities between the two civilizations there is some evidence of trading between them, especially at strategic points such as the frontier trade city of Taximoroa but also through local tribes acting as middle men in the border 'buffer' zones. The archaeological record of cultural exchange in terms of artistic styles is, however, limited to a handful of pottery vessels found in the respective trading partner's territory.
When the Spaniards arrived in Michoacán in 1522 CE the Tarascans, who had previously ignored a plea of help from the Aztecs, came to relatively peaceable terms with the new masters of Mesoamerica and became a mere vassal state.
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[ 6 ]

Chimu Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Chimú civilization, otherwise called the kingdom of Chimor, flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the 12th and 15th centuries CE. With their capital at Chan Chan the Chimu were the largest and most prosperous culture in the Late Intermediate Period and forged the second largest empire in the history of the ancient Andes. Their architecture, approach to regional governance, and art would also go on to influence their more famous successors, the Incas.

Historical Overview

The traditional founding ruler of the Chimú was Taycanamo who was considered to have been born from a golden egg and then arrived from the sea. Other notable rulers include Guacricaur, who expanded into the Moche, Santa, and Zaña valleys. Eventually the Chimú extended their territory even further south and in 1375 CE, under the rulership of Nancinpinco, conquered the Lambayeque (Sicán) culture absorbing some of their cultural practices and artistic ideas. The La Leche Valley was also brought under Chimú control so that, at its height during the reign of Minchançaman in c. 1400 CE, the area of Chimú influence stretched 1300 km along the coast of northern Peru.
Chan Chan was the hub of a vast trade and tribute network and no fewer than 26,000 craftsmen and women resided there.
The initial prosperity of the Chimú was largely due to their agricultural skills as they built an extensive irrigation system using canals. Later, their successful military campaigns and policy of extracting tribute ensured that they became the dominant regional power. Chan Chan came to be the capital of other administrative centres, such as at Farfán, Manchan, El Milagro, Quebrado Katuay, and the fortress site of Paramonga. This domination came to an end with the rise of the Incas who, led by Tupac Yupanqui, captured the 11th known Chimú ruler Minchançaman in c. 1470 CE. Thereafter, the Chimú became a vassal state in the Inca Empire, and their king was kept permanent prisoner at Cuzco to ensure compliance to the new order. The Incas also assimilated certain aspects of Chimú culture, such as rulers inheriting the title but not the property of their predecessors, the policy of allowing conquered rulers a certain autonomy, the idea to have compounds of foreign artists working for the state, and certain features of Chimú art. The Incas also kept written records of the Chimú culture and through these we have, albeit sparse, information regarding their rulers and principal gods. The latter include the creator god Ai Apaec, the sea god Ni, and, perhaps the most important deity in the Chimú pantheon, the moon goddess Si.

Chan Chan

The capital city of the Chimú was Chan Chan (known as Chimor to its original inhabitants) which, built at the mouth of the Rió Moche, covered some 20 square kilometres and had a population of up to 40,000 at its peak. The city became the hub of a vast trade and tribute network, and no fewer than 26,000 craftsmen and women resided there, often forcibly removed from conquered cities to mass produce high quality goods in a wide range of precious materials.
Chimú architecture is characterised by monumental adobe brick buildings. Ten royal palaces or compounds were constructed over the centuries in a rectangular layout, each with 10-metre high double exterior walls, labyrinthine interiors, and with only a single entrance. Of special note are the U-shaped audience rooms which controlled access to the store rooms. The walls of the compounds, built to restrict access by commoners, were decorated on the inside with bold relief designs, typically repeated geometric shapes, animals, and sea life, especially fish. The cut patterns may have been in imitation of those from textile wall hangings. Similar adobe compounds were built at other Chimú sites, for example, nine at Manchan and six at Farfán.
Functional structures within each compound include administrative and storage buildings and burial platforms accessed by ramps which contained mummified leaders. Over time the newer palaces became larger - the biggest covers an area of 220,000 square metres - and more space was dedicated to storage, indicative of the Chimú's policy of extracting tribute from conquered territories. Chan Chan also expanded in general with more residences for administrators and artisans, the latter living in modest dwellings of wattle-and-daub with steep roofs and a single hearth. The city also had an extensive irrigation system which combined canals, shallow reservoirs, and wells.

Chimú Art

Influenced by the Wari and Moche civilizations, the Chimú would continue and expand upon artistic themes which have become staple features of Andean art ever since. Chimú pottery is characterised by mould-made blackware and redware with sculpted decoration which is given a highly polished finish. The most common shape is double-spouted bulbous jars. Textiles have natural colours, the most precious with exotic feather decoration where plumes are sown in rows onto a cotton backing and dyed to create designs. Popular motifs include open-armed figures wearing headdresses - probably representing the ruling class - and double-headed 'rainbow' snakes. Textiles could also be decorated with precious metal additions and one tunic survives with 7,000 small gold squares individually sewn onto the fabric.
Carved and inlaid spondylus shells, acquired from Ecuador, were another popular medium for Chimú art with diamond-shape inlays creating striking jewellery pieces. Precious goods could also be made using gold, silver, and imported amber and emeralds from Colombia. Many examples of wooden sculptures have been recovered from two pyramid structures outside Chan Chan (Huaca el Dragón and Huaca Tacaynamo). Most such figures represent members of funerary processions.
Finally, it is interesting to note that Chimú rulers were themselves collectors of art from other cultures and their palaces were full of niches in which objects and statues were placed for display. Chan Chan artists themselves had such a reputation that the Incas forcibly relocated thousands of them, along with their finest pieces, to their capital at Cuzco which was also an effective method to control precious goods production and so limit the resources to fund rebellion.
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[ 7 ]

Chan Chan

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Chan Chan (Chimor) was the capital city of the Chimu civilization which flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the 12th and 15th centuries CE. The city was a giant metropolis populated by peoples from across the Chimu Empire, the largest the Americas had ever seen up to that time. Today, many of Chan Chan’s huge palace complexes with their high relief-decorated adobe walls still survive as testimony to the city’s lost grandeur.

Historical Overview

Chan Chan, also known as Chimor, the name of its original inhabitants, was built at the mouth of the Rio Moche from c. 1000 CE. The initial prosperity of the Chimu was largely due to their agricultural skills as they built an extensive irrigation system using canals. Later, their successful military campaigns and policy of extracting tribute ensured that they became the dominant regional power. At its height, Chan Chan covered some 20 square kilometres and had a population of up to 40,000 making it the largest city yet seen in the Andes. The city became the hub of a vast trade and tribute network, and no fewer than 26,000 craftsmen and women resided there, often forcibly removed from conquered territories, especially the Lambayeque, to mass produce high-quality goods for domestic consumption and export. Raw materials traded and controlled by Chan Chan included gold, spondylus shell, tropical feathers, and foodstuffs.
The traditional founding ruler of the Chimu was Taycanamo, who was considered to have been born from a golden egg and then arrived from the sea. Other notable rulers include Guacricaur, who expanded into the Moche, Santa, and Zaña valleys. Eventually, the Chimu extended their territory even further south and in 1375 CE, under the rule of Nancinpinco, conquered the Lambayeque (Sican) culture absorbing some of their cultural practices and artistic ideas. The La Leche Valley was also brought under Chimu control so that, at its height, the Chimu Empire was the largest and most prosperous in South America during the Late Intermediate Period. At its greatest extent during the reign of Minchançaman c. 1400 CE, the area of Chimu influence stretched 1300 kilometres along the coast of northern Peru. As the empire grew so other administrative centres sprang up, such as at Farfan, Manchan, El Milagro, Quebrado Katuay, and the fortress site of Paramonga, but Chan Chan was supreme as the centre of the Chimu world.
Chan Chan covered some 20 km² & had a population of up to 40,000 making it the largest city yet seen in the Andes.


The city is without a recognisable centre and spreads out in a series of blocks interspersed with stone-lined canals and punctuated with small artificial lakes and wells. The architecture at Chan Chan is characterised by buildings constructed using pre-prepared sections of poured mud or adobe. Most impressive are the large rectangular palace compounds (ciudadelas) which served multiple functions as royal residence, storage facility, mausoleum, and administrative centre.
Ten royal palaces or compounds were constructed over the centuries at Chan Chan. It is possible that the Chimu system of royal inheritance was for each new king to inherit the title but not the wealth of his predecessor. This would result in a late ruler’s family taking over the royal palace while the new king was required to build himself a new one, explaining the high number of such palaces at Chan Chan. The system has the added benefit of ensuring a new ruler actively engages in expanding the empire in order to fund his reign.
The palaces were built in a rectangular layout, each with 10-metre high double exterior walls, labyrinthine interiors, and with only a single entrance guarded by two standing wooden statues set in niches. Of special note are the U-shaped audience or ritual rooms (audiencias) which controlled access to the storerooms. These are around 4 square metres, had elevated floors and, originally, gabled roofs. Functional structures within each compound include administrative and storage buildings and burial platforms accessed by a ramp. The large T-shaped tomb within the latter contained the mummified leaders while smaller tombs their family and entourage. Such tombs would have regularly been re-opened to inter new occupants. Over time the newer palaces became larger - the biggest covers an area of 220,000 square metres - and more space was dedicated to storage, indicative of the Chimu's imperial successes and policy of extracting tribute from conquered territories.
The walls of the compounds, built to restrict access by commoners, were decorated on the outside with bold relief designs, typically repeated geometric shapes, animals, and sea life, especially fish. The interior walls had niches for wooden decorative masks and figurines. Precious art objects would have been displayed here. The distinctive patterns cut into the walls may have been in imitation of those from textile wall hangings or basketwork. Similar adobe compounds were built at other Chimu sites, for example, nine at Manchan and six at Farfan. All of the compounds at Chan Chan are in the centre of the city, while more modest habitation lies on the city’s outskirts. Here were the residences for administrators in miniature versions of the larger compounds, and artisans (metalworkers, woodworkers, and weavers), who lived in more modest dwellings of wattle-and-daub and cane with steep roofs and a single hearth. Finally, on the outskirts of the city, were two large burial pyramid-mounds known as Huaca el Dragon and Huaca Tacaynamo.

The Fall of Chan Chan

Chimu architecture, their approach to regional governance, and their art would go on to influence their more famous successors, the Incas, who conquered Chan Chan c. 1470 CE. It was then that Tupac Yupanqui captured the 11th known Chimú ruler Minchançaman, who was kept permanent prisoner at Cuzco to ensure compliance to the new order. In addition, to control precious goods production and so limit the resources to fund rebellion thousands of Chan Chan artists and artisans were forcibly relocated to Cuzco. The Chimu thus became no more than a vassal state in the vast Inca Empire.

Archaeological Finds

Chimu rulers were enthusiastic collectors of art from other cultures and their palaces were like museums full of niches in which objects and statues were placed for display. So too, rulers were buried with precious objects but, unfortunately, the site has suffered extensive looting, starting with the Incas. The Spanish, for example, describe melting down a covered doorway from Chan Chan to produce 500 kilos of gold. Post-conquest, Chan Chan has also suffered from El Nino rains, which have badly eroded the adobe brick buildings and walls over the centuries, some of which are now protected by permanent roofing. Nevertheless, finds include examples of the typical Chimu blackware ceramics, commonly in the form of effigy vessels or bulbous pots with spouted handles and incised decoration of geometric patterns. Surviving metalwork in the form of such items as gold earspools, feathered tunics, pendants of inlaid shells, miniature models of funeral scenes in wood and gold, and fine cotton textiles are all testimony to the skills of Chan Chan artisans.
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