** native American civilizations -- South America chrnological development

Great South American Native American Civilizations: Chronological Development

Figure 1.--This tourist postcard, probably dating from the 1910s, shows a Bolivian boy standiung by an ancient statue somewhere on the Altiplano. The Statue is not identified, but is is probably from Tiwanaku--a civilization that led to the Inca.

In South America it was the Andes and adjacent coastal areas that proved the most fertile ground for the rise of high culture. Northern Peru was especially important in this process. Here corn-based agriculture was suplemented by the addition of the potato, a crop which was also of enormous consequence. It is not entirely clear why the most advanced civilzations developed in the Andes rather than the river valleys. South America is the only continent where high civilization developed in mountaneous areas. And adding to the puzzel, this occurred in South America and not North America where the Native Americans reached first and had much more fertile ground than the mountanous Andes. We have not yet seen this topic addressed by scholars, but presumnably some one has. We would be intetested in any insights readers may have. We suspect that the humble potato is part of the reason. A key factor in the success of any early civilization was the agricultural productivity they were able to genetate. The potato had enormous caloric counts thus making agriculture in mountabneous areas tremedously productive. An exception was some of the coastal civilizations in Peru. Here the prodigious bounty of Peruvian waters as a result of upwelling was an important factor. The Inca are by far the best known of the South American Andean groups, but there are several other important groups. There is some debate about the level of Amazonian culture before the arrival of the Europeans.

Caral/Norte Chico (c2800-1600 BC)

The Norte Chico civilization is sometimes called Caral (2600-2000 BC), the first important South Americn site studied in detail. Norte Chico is Spanish for the Near North (as opposed to the far north further away from Lima) Coast and includes five river valleys just north of Lima (the Chancay, Huaura, Supe, Fortaleza, and Pativilca Rivers. These are all reltively small rivers as the Sierra is so close to the coast. The well studied Caral site was one of the Note Chico siites, perhaps the earliest or most important. About 30 major population centers have been identified as part of the Norte Chico civilization. It is the earliest known center of civilization in the Americas (about 21st century BC). Thus it is one of six sites where civilization independently originated. The arid coast of Peru seems an unlikely location for civilization to develop, but on closer inspection there are similaities to the great river valley civiliaztions, at least the three Western ones (Mesopotmia, Egypy, and Indus). While there was not one large river, several small rivers flowed down from the Sierra (Andean Highlands) into the arid coast, creating narrow valleys that could be farmed. It is not all together clear if civilization began in the highlands and spread to the coast or began along the coast and spread to the highlands. Notably many of the Norte Chico sites are close to the coast. Norte Chico is a pre-ceramic culture pre-Columbian civilization. There were no ceramics and almost no known art. Despite the substantial technival advnces, pottery first appeared in South America in the Amazonian Basin and gradually spread to the Andean civilizations leading to questions about the level of Amazonian civilization. Norte Chico is best known for its monumental architecture. The most notable structures were large earthwork platform mounds known as 'huacas' and sunken circular plazas. These constructures with modifications appear again and again among andeam civilizations. Archaeological works suggests the production of textile which do not survive well. And their are representations of god symbols which are repeated in subsequent civilizations. These early peoples of Peru began the development of important technical skills and social organization needed to chnnel water into irrigation systems. They began the domestication of important food crops that would have a profound impact on modern civilization. Scholars debate the importance of seafood and other maritime resources in the development of Norte Chico. Upwelling along the Peruvian coast make it one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Norte Chico is the last of the great centers of abcient civilizations to be studies. Sites were identified as early as 1905, but intensive study began much later (1990s). Unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt, early South American civilizations attracted little interest among European scholars.

El Paraíso (c1800-1050 BC)

El Paraíso is a fascinating site along the central Peruvian coast, interesting in the northern suburbs of modern Lima. This early coastal city stood at the turning point of important technologies, both ceramics and agriculture. I is one of the largest pre-ceramic sites with eight monumental structures built with tins of quarried stones. Unlike Norte Chico, El Paraíso was not a site related to several neighboring societies, but one of several widely dispersed and unrelated coastal sites. El Paraíso, despite its relative isolation, was tremendously influential. The earliest coastal sites show an emphasis on harvesting marine resources. Paraíso is most notable for 'U--shaped ceremonial centers. [Atwood, p. 42.] At first, the open area of these structures faced the sea. Begining with El Paraíso, the open area of the ceremonial structures began facing the Andes. And a El Paraíso was a society in tranbsition between a focus on harvesting marine resources and agriculture, anthropologists speculate that this represents a reorientation toward agriculture and the water in the Chillón River flowing down from the Andes. We also notice the appearance of pottery, alhough it may have primarily imported pottery. There is evidence of experimentatin with ceramics. The people at El Paraíso flourished for a relatively short period, perhaps 300 to 400 years. One estimate 1770-1,045 BC. Woven straw fragments are the basis of radio carbon dating. [Quilter, pp. 279,281.]

Chavin (c900-200 BC)

Another early civilization in South America is the Chavín civilization. It developed developed in the northern Peruvian highlands and adjacent coastal highlands. The Chavin civilization appeared in some of the areas previously settled by the Norte Chico civilization. They appear to have extended their influence to other civilizations along the coast. The Chavín people were centered in the Mosna Valley where the Mosna and Huachecsa rivers merge. The formtive period has been noted from artifacts (about 1200 BC). The most notable Chavin site is Chavín de Huántar iin the Sierra north of Lima. It was religious and political center of the Chavín people (about 900 BC). The culture left a huge inprint on nortern Peru. Chavin exhibited notable advances in arcitecture and metalurgy. The Chavin people domesticated camelids, including llamas. They were used as pack animals, pelts (textiles), and food. Camelids were used to produce jerky ans importnt food source and trade item. The Chavin people cultivated several crops, including potatoes, quinoa, and maize. They developed an irrigation system to water arid coastal areas.

Tiwanaku (c400 BC-c1000 AD)

Tiwanaku was one of the early great Native American civilizations in South America. The Neolithic Revolution occurred here centuries after it did in Meso-America, but apparently independently. The city state of Tiwanaku was settled on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca (about 800 BC). It was one of many such settlements. It begins to emerge as the most important (about 400 BC), Thus the cradel of civilization in South America was the cold waters of Lake Titicaca. While this does not seem the most ideal place for civilization to develop., the lake waters was not frigid and the Titicaca Basin warmer than the the High Andes and Altiplano. Tiwanaku itself had a great advantage. Not only could they benefit from the bounty of the Lake, but they were situated so as to command trade between the Altiplano and Pacific coast. This helped finance the growth of great civilization. The city was the first great metroplis in South America. There were many terraced platform pyramids, courts, and domiciles spreading over 2.3 square miles. [Richardon, p. 122] The fact that Tiwanaku is virtually unknown today is an indication of the limited archeological work done in South America. Archeologists have found carefully carved stones perfectly fitted together to form walls and pyramids. Estimates suggest 30,000-40,000 people may have lived at Tiwanaku. Very little, however, is known about the Tiwanaku culture. They practiced raised field agriculture. Tiwanaku was not a great empire, but came to dominate not only the souther valley, but both shores of the Lake (400-500 AD). Their entire economic network and culture much of the souther Andes (700 AD). [Richardson, p 130] Tiwanaku was weakened by a climatic catastrophe, perhapa a mega-El Niño. There is of course no written records, but ampel evidence in glacial ice cores and tree rings. [Mann, p. 25.] Tiwanaku is seen as the classical culture upon which the great Inca Empire was founded.

Nazca (c100 BC-600 AD)

For reasons not fully understood, civilization in the Americas began along the northern coast of Peru. Surely the fact tht the southern coast was more arid was a factor. The first important coastal civilization along the southern coast was Nazca. It is named after the Nazca Valley but included the adjacent Pisco, Chincha, Ica, Palpa, and Acarí River valleys. The Nazca were heavily influenced by the Paracas culture which preceeded it. They were particularly known for beautiful textiles. The Nazca are well known for beautiful craft works textiles and ceramics. The Nazca wove swirling abstrct patterns. They added cotton cloth to Camelid wool. The Nazca are known for their polychrome painted pottery. Most was fairly simple, but there was modeling in the later phase. Four or more colors might be used. The designs are styalistic but natural themes (people, animals, birds, fish, plants). They are commonly stiff or angular. Early Nazca pottery was fuctuinal easy to produce open bowl forms or double-spouted jars with flat bridge handles. The painted designs were also uncomplicated and bold. The Late Nazca (Ica) style focused on other vessel deigns, including modeled effigies and the designs include more complicated detail. The Nazca also made important technological advances. They constructed an important system of underground aqueducts known as puquios. Irrigation was vital in the arid south. Some of the system still function today. In popular culture the Nzca are best known for their geoglyphs (Nazca lines) which like their potery uses natural themes. Interestingly many of the animal depictions are from species found in the far away Amazonian basin.

Moche (c100-750 AD)

The Moche appeared in areas that has been the location of the earlier Chavin civilization. They are sometime referred to as early- or proto- Chimu. The dominanted the coast of what is now northrn Peru for six centuries. Scholars differ on the Chimu. Many contend that there was no centralized state, but rather a grouping of largely autonomous polities with a common elite culture which can be established by their iconography and monumental architecture. The Moche developed a strictly stratified culture with powerful elites withn elaborate rituals. The political economy developed large civic-ceremonial centers. Here goods were produced and traded for foods stuffs and raw materils brought from the countryside. The Moche were an agriculturally people who built a complex irrigation system to farm the arid coast. Rivers running down from the Sierra irrigated narrow valleys. Irrigation enabled the Moche to farm muxh larger areas. They are surely best known for their destinctive painted pottery dpicting their lives, through realitic scenes of hunting, fishing, fighting, sacrifice, sex, and elaborate ceremonies. The Moche also left three-dimensional murals made of plastered clay on their public buildings. These murals also depict a wide range of figures and public themes, including fierce warriors and their war prisoners, priests, and strange supernatural beings. Much of what we know about the Moche comes from their ceramics and murals. The Moche were the only Native American people who produced realistic images of their important rulers. They also are known for their gold work. Monumental construction of huacas are the source of importnt archeological finds. Tragically a great deal of archaeological evidence has been destoyed by looting began in the Spanish colonial history.

Wari (c700-c1000 AD)

The Wari are the second of the two great early Native American civilizations in South America. The Wari or Huari Empire dominated the coast and foothills of what is now Peru (700-1000 AD). The War were not a vast trading network like Tiwanaku, but the first great warrior people of South America. Their armies conquered neigboring states and imposed their culture on the subject people. Thus these cultures disappeared as Wari culture spread over a large area. Their capital was the modern city of Ayachuco, but Wari outposts and cities have been found throughout Peru. Wari cities were meticulosly contructed in a grid patter, rather like American cities. To unite their far-flung empire, they built an extensive road system. This is a characteristic of large far flung empires, in the same way as the Persians and Romans were also noted for their roads. The War road network was eventually incorporated into the Inca road network. The War built imposing stone buildings that were earhquake resistant. Archologists have begun to explore the ancient city of Wari in southern Peru. The Wari economy was an agricultural and fishing one. The War harvested the boufiful fishing resources of coastl Peru, based on coastal upwelling. The Wari collapsed at about the same time as Tiwanaku adding credence to environmental catastrophe theories. The Wari were the classical civivilzation on which Chimu culture was founded and also influenced the Inca who conquered the Chimu.

Chimu (c1100-1476 AD)

The Chimu or Chimor Empire dominated the coast of Peru after the coastal people began to recover from the enviroment disater that undermined the Wari. Some archaeologists believe they may be related to Moche, rising from the remanents of the Moche. Early Chimu pottery is similar to that of the Moche. The Chimu, like the Wari, were a war-like people. They began the conquests building their empire (about 1100 AD). The Chimu eventually controlled much of the coast of northern Peru. The Chimu Empire was much smaller than the Wari Empire at its height and more dependant on the sea. They were masters of irrigation. They constructed elaborate irrigation works which fed water from the Indians to irrigate the arid coastal lowlands. The center of the Chimu state was Chan Chan along the coast north of Lima. A 20-mile canal carried water from the Chicama Valley to Chan Chan which was thus able to support a population of some 70,000 people. Minchancamon was the last Chimu emperor. He conquuered the Sican in the north. Then war broke out with the Inca in the south (1462). It is unclear as to who attacked who, but war between the two military states was inevitable once they came into contact. The war with the Inca lasted over a decade. The Inca developed the strategy of diverting canal waters from besiged cities. The Inca eventually conquered the Chimu (1475-76). This put the Chimu under great pressure. Archaeologistse have found evidence of the greatest instance of child sacrifice ever found. At Las Llamas they found skeletons of some 140 children (ages 5-14 years). The Aztecs were know to sacrifice much larger numbers, but they sacrifuced mostly adult males. Preserved footprints reveal how the children were dragged to the site where they were rutuallu sacrificed with knife blows to the sternum. It is not known what occassioned the event. It could have been adverse weather conditions and drought. But given the approximate date (about 1470), it could have been connected with the Inca war. The Inca absorbed the entire Chimu Empire, their largest single conquest. Thus the coast of Peru becme part of the Tawantinsuyu community which until the fall of the Chimu had been a basically Andean empire. It is at this time that the Inca moved their capital to Cuzco.


Native Americans in the Amazonian Basin are a very complicated topic which in recent years have become a matter of intence scholarly debate. It has been common to think of the Amazonian Native Americans as primitive people lot in time and providing a window to the stone age. Anthropolgists visting these people provided portraits suggesting this view. And respected anthropolgists proposed a theory explaining why this has occurred--the inherent ecological limitations of the tropical rain forest. This was the widely accepted view of the Amazon for many years. There is now considerable scholarly reassessment of this view. The major cultural groups of the Amazon are the Arawak and Tupi speaking people. Guaraní-speaking people were located to the south in the Paraguay-Paraná basin. Rather than timeless, the Amazon has been the scene of major cultural chnge. About 2,000 years ago, Arawak-speaking people began to migrate north and east into the Amazon and drive Tupí-speaking people to the north and east. The major issue today is the pre-Conquest population and culural level of the Amazonian peoples. The earliest repots suggest a very dence population practing settled agriculture. This was how Gaspar de Carvajal described the Amazon (1540s). His account has been dismissed becaused he included an account od women warriors. Researchers today are not as dimissive and some archeologists have found evidence suggesting highly profutive settled agriculture. Some now believe that the primitive tribes in the Amazon today are the descendents of people forced to abandon setteled agriculture by European diseases and Portuguese slave raiders.

Inca (c1400-1536)

The Inca until the early 15th century were but one of a large number of tribes situated in the Andes and narrow coastal plain from Chile north to Colombia. The tribes shared many common cultural cahracteristoics. The Inca were possessed with a messianic creed which taught that they were destined to dominate the world. They proceeded to conquer and assimilate neighboring tribes in southern Peru around Lake Titicaca. at the beginning of the 15th entury the Inca was just one of large number of Andean and costal tribes. Then there was an amazing explosioin out of their mountain domain and within 100 years carved out an emense empire. Theh absorbed conquered peoples relatively beningly as long as thy accepted the Inca Sun God. The Inca had a genius for public administration, enineering, as well as military strategy. One of their mostal notable inovations was the construction of a road network allowing the rapid movement of armies. Runners operating rather like pony express riders moved messages with great rapidity from th most remote imperial outposts to the capital at Cuzco. Eventually this network streached the length of South America from central Chile to southern Colombia--over 2,500 miles. Terraces were carved out of steep mountains, creating cultivateable land. These teraces were notable engineering achievements. The Inca were master weavers. The nobility wore garments woven from vicuña. The common people wore garments wove from the more course llama wool. There was no written language, but records were kept by quipus--colored and knottd strings. The most important Inca ruler was Pachacuti (He Who Shakes the Earth) who regined from 1438-1471 and helped create the administrative structure needed for a great empire. The Incan Empire was operate on a system of state socialism. The Empire's output was the property of the Emperor or Inca and he distribute the food and clothing that wa produced among his subjects as he saw fit. To the Inca, the gods resided in their native Andean mountains. The Inca placated the gods with offerings of corn, chica, meat, and occasioinally human sacrifices.


The most sophisticated Native American civilization in what is now Colombia was the Andean Chibcha culture. They were one of the few Andean peoples not yet conquered by the expanding Inca Empire. The Chincha dominated the highland basins and valleys of the Cordillera Oriental in what is now Colombia. The Chibcha are less well known than the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, but were an important culture. The Chibcha inhabited the Andean valleys around Bogotá and Tunja in centrl Colombia. The population has been estimated at 0.5 million people. They are believed to have been one of the most politically centralized of the Native Americans, with the exception of the highly centralized Inca Empire. Over time the process of war and alliances had unified the Chibcha into two major states and several smaller ones ones, each with its own hereditary chief. The Inca Empire was a much larger state, but a a result of rapid expansion not as coherent a state as the Chincha. The Chibcha like other Native Americans were a stone-age people, but a highly developed one. The economy was based on intensive highland agriculture. There were crafts, most notably gold working. They were also a trading society. The larger villages held weekly markets where aricultural produce, pottery, and cloth were traded. Gold was used for personal ornamentation and religious offrings. The arrival of the Spanish cut short the further development and centralization of the Chibcha. The Spanish crushed the Chibcha militarily and by the 18th century the Chibcha language disappeared.


Atwood, Roger. "Paradise changed: Anbancient Peruvian city stood at the crossroads of technologies," Archaeology (July-August 2018), pp. 42-43.

Quilter, J., B. Ojeda E., D.M. Pearsall, D.H. Sandweiss, J.G. Jones and E.S. Wing. "Subsistence economy of El Paraiso, an early Peruvian site," Science Vol. 251, No. 4991 (1991), pp. 279,281.


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Created: 4:08 AM 6/20/2012
Last updated: 9:43 AM 6/23/2021