Introduction to the Archaeological Sites
of Northern Peru

Quick Links


Peru is steeped in a rich archaeological heritage, with some of the most important sites lying in the coastal desert of the northern coast and in the southern Andean Highlands. In this guide a general overview of the most important sites in these areas is presented, enabling the reader to gain an insight into Peruvian archaeology and the cultures responsible for this legacy.

The few large valleys of the North Coast of Peru, which break up the monotony of the desert, feature some of the oldest monumental architecture of the Andes. Archaeologists consider it one of the few regions of the world where pristine states emerged.

Chan Chan

By the third millennium BC the early inhabitants of this region developed a highly efficient economy based primarily on the rich marine resources of the Peruvian coast. Very complex societies emerged in this region long before the advent of large-scale irrigation agriculture or ceramics. Unfortunately, we still know very little about these mysterious cultures.

After intensive agriculture was firmly established by the second millennium, the cultures of this region showed increased integration. The Mochica culture (100 BC-600 AD) appeared as the result of a long development process and is probably not the first multi-valley polity. However, its achievements in terms of the size, quantity and the quality of their architecture and works of art mark a new level of sociocultural integration. Many scholars talk of the Moche as a very belligerent, even expansionist, state-level society, with strong, powerful rulers. The power of these rulers, like those buried at SIPAN, can be measured by the wealth witnessed at sites like EL BRUJO or the HUACA DEL SOL Y DE LA LUNA COMPLEX, where lavish ceremonies undoubtedly took place.

The Lambayeque or Sicán culture (1000/1100-1350 AD) continued the pyramid-building tradition of the Moche, as can he seen at the site of TUCUME, and expanded the already large irrigation system built by their forefathers. Ancient settlements like TUCUME, while still characterized by huge pyramids, also show a slightly more urban character. Large scale manufacturing of luxury goods, an old tradition on the North.

Coast, reached new heights during the Sicán era. The Sicán people were, among other things, masters of metallurgy.

The Chimú empire (1200-1470 AD), with its capital in CHAN CHAN appears to have used military force to expand, conquering TUCUME and all the North and Central coast of Peru. Their domain stretched from Pativillca, north of Lima, to Tumbes, near the modern border with Ecuador. The size and quality of the citadels of CHAN CHAN, the first non-pyramidal buildings to take on great importance, betray an enormous amount of labor invested to separate the rulers (who must have seemed something resembling living deities) from the masses of the working population.

Parallel to the Chimú expansion, a small ethnic group, whose main temple in Cusco was to be become the impressive KORICANCHA, began taking over the southern Andes. After the defeat of the invading Chanca army under the guidance of Inca Pachacutec, the Inca began a formidable series of conquests, first across the heavily segmented valleys of the southern Andes and the Titicaca Basin, then onto the coast. In many of the areas conquered they made more land available for agriculture by building terraces and canals of unparalleled effectiveness and beauty. Excellent examples can be seen at OLLANTAYTAMBO and MACHU PICCHU.

The Inca subjugated the Chimú by 1470 AD, but even in that case, where they encountered bitter resistance, they preferred to leave the local leaders in power while establishing firm economic and ceremonial ties. A major strategy of consolidation, especially in areas of notoriously rebellious subjects, was the large-scale relocation of population.

The Incas operators operating in conquered territories tended to establish themselves on or near strategic points, such as in Huaca Larga in TUCUME. They assimilated the culture of their former foes, integrating their gods to the Inca pantheon and, in the case of the Chimú, transferring metal smiths from CHAN CHAN to Cusco.

By April 1532, when Pizarro’s troops sailed towards mainland Peru on a flotilla of balsa wood rafts, the Inca empire was reeling from a series of smallpox epidemics, one of which killed the Inca emperor, leading to a destructive war of succession between his sons.

The impeccable stone walls of the Inca capital of Cusco, more a huge ceremonial center than a city, are mute witnesses to the former splendor and the bitterness of the final defeat suffered at the walls of SACSAYHUAMAN.