Archaeology in Peru
When you think of the many ruins in Peru, you probably think first of the monuments of the Inca. But the Inca were not an ancient people – they had established themselves as the dominant culture in Peru for less than a century when the Spanish arrived in 1532. Peru has many layers of human civilization, dating back 12,000 years. Experts and government officials guess that there are around 100,000 sites of archaeological significance in Peru. Around 10,000 of these sites have been excavated. There is still much to uncover.
Even in the middle of Peru’s largest city, Lima, archaeologists still find important artifacts hidden in plain sight. In 2006, archaeologists discovered that a large mound called Huaca Huantille served as a burial mound for the Ichma people, who lived in Lima from 1000 A.D. to 1400 A.D. Homeless people had used the mound as a shelter for many years, probably unaware of the bones that lay inside the ruin. But an ancient temple between modern city buildings is nothing new for Lima. Huaca Huantille is about 30 minutes to the east of two of Lima’s most famous temples, Huaca Pucllana and Huaca Huallamarca. These earlier temples came out of the Lima civilization, which flourished from 100 A.D. to 600 A.D.
Archaeologists in Peru must race against a thriving community of grave robbers. For over 500 hundred years, struggling peasants have used their intimate knowledge of the landscape to look for graves and uncover veins of ancient gold. Grave robbers are called huaqueros, deriving from the world Quechua word for temple, huaca. To find a burial site, grave robbers will sometimes simply use a spear to stab the earth, looking for hollow ground. Once they find a tomb, the huaqueros grab the colorful jewelry and push the bones aside. Thankfully, some technological advances have proved useful in the effort to stop grave robbers. Drones have been recently deployed for surveillance, to keep track of which sites have attracted illegal digging.
Peruvian archaeological sites have more to fear than looters. In 2013, real estate developers tore down a pyramid known as El Paraíso, thought to be around 4,000 years old. August 2014 saw the similar destruction of a pyramid called El Bosque, in the La Republíca region of Peru. According to the Cultural Ministry, these developers made tenuous claims to the land in order to profit from Peru’s increased demand for affordable housing.
Looters can face a jail sentence of up to 8 years, but poverty is a powerful incentive to make off with the ancient treasures underfoot. As you stroll the streets of Peru, especially nearby an ancient ruin, be wary of merchants offering to sell you ancient artifacts. Chances are high that they aren’t real. Even if they are, it’s illegal to purchase artifacts and take them out of the country.
Peru is home to some of the oldest cities in the world. This list will give you a better idea of the huge variety of peoples that have called Peru home.
Sechín Bajo 3500 BC
Begin your exploration of Peruvian archaeology at the beginning. In 2008, archaeologists uncovered this 5,500-year-old city, near a complex of ruins called Cerro Sechín. This site is one of the world’s first known cities, marking an important milestone in human civilization.
Sechín Bajo is located in the Casma Valley, where other ancient developments, like Las Haldas, have given researchers insight into the type of landscape that allowed early Peruvians to flourish. Not much is known about the inhabitants of these cities, as the rubble of Sechín Bajo is all that remains of their civilization.
Visitor’s tip: Sechín Bajo may still be under heavy excavation when you arrive. If so, it’s only about a 5 minute drive to Sechín Alto, a u-shaped complex built around 1800 B.C. Nearby you’ll also find the Museo Max Uhle, a site devoted to the reconstructions of the gory murals found at Cerro Sechín.
Caral 3000 B.C. – 1800 B.C.
Located two hours north of Lima, Caral first came to the attention of archaeologists in 1996. Using carbon dating, scientists have estimated this site’s age at nearly 5,000 years old. Before the discovery of Sechín Bajo, Caral was thought to be the oldest city in South America.
Aside from its sheer age, visit Caral to see the crumbling pyramids and circular courtyards. These are architectural styles that were passed down and replicated over many generations of Peruvian history.
Visitor tip: You will need a guide to see the ruins, available for hire at the entrance to the site. These guides are often students, and typically inexpensive.
Chavín 1500 B.C. – 300 B.C.
Archaeologists believe the temple of Chavín de Huántar served as a pilgrimage site. It is best known for its many carved reliefs of feline deities. There are a wide variety of strange creatures depicted on the walls of the temple here, including animals with human faces.
One of the best-known artifacts from this site, the Tello Obelisk, is on display at the National Museum of Archaeology and History in Lima. It is named for Julio C. Tello, the Peruvian archaeologist who brought attention to this site in 1919, and went on to earn a reputation as the father of Peruvian archaeology.
Visitor tip: Check out the series of chambers under the ruin. Keep in mind that these can get crowded toward the afternoon.
Nazca 200 B.C. – 600 A.D.
You will often hear the Nazca people described as “mysterious” – a mysterious people who left behind the mysterious Nazca Lines, and went on to disappear, mysteriously.
Aliens from outer space are usually suspects in the Nazca’s disappearance. But a recent study of the Nazca Desert offers a more straightforward explanation. The Nazca people harvested the haurango tree, a tree with deep roots that help keep moisture in the soil. 1,500 years ago, when the Nazca population started to decline, the number of huarango trees in the area had been drastically reduced. Without these trees, the environment became too dry to support its human population. This archaeological discovery has been cited in recent discussions about modern environmental preservation.
Visitor’s tip: It is difficult to fully appreciate the Nazca Lines from the ground, and many tourists opt to see them on an airplane tour.
You can see the textiles and ceramics that the Nazca left behind in the nearby town of Nazca, at the Museo Antonini.
The pre-Columbian Era
Many civilizations settled on the northern coast of Peru because of the huge variety of seafood available. Here, the Humboldt Current collides with some of the warmer currents of the Pacific, making it a good habitat for a wide variety of fish. Peru’s northern cities of Trujillo, El Brujo, and Lambayeque are known for their archaeological splendor.
This era is usually called either the pre-Columbian or pre-Hispanic era, terms that broady describe the time before Europeans arrived.
Moche 100 B.C. – 850 A.D.
The Moche dominated a 2,500-square mile territory in northern Peru, concentrated around the modern city of Trujillo. They lived in the desert, and built extensive aqueducts to irrigate their land. Ceramics and murals left behind have led historians to believe that the Moche engaged in elaborate ritualized sacrifice. Damage to temples, as well as recent research into desert weather patterns, suggests that the Moche endured a series of intense floods and droughts that led to their demise in the 9th century.
Huaca de Luna and Huaca del Sol are all located near the northern town of Trujillo. Trujillo is a popular destination based on its surfing beaches and colonial architecture. Take a closer look at its ancient past during your visit. Although not open to the public, visitors can admire Huaca del Sol from the outside. It is the largest adobe structure in the world. Huaca de la Luna has intricate murals that depict the Moche decapitator god, part of the reason archaeologists believe this temple may have served as the site of human sacrifice. Excavations have also uncovered the remains of 40 men buried within the temple.
Visitor’s tip: Trujillo is home to Museo Casinelli, with its notorious cache of erotic Moche ceramics, most of it purchased from grave robbers. You have to ask the museum staff to see the entirety of this X-rated collection.
Also visit Trujillo’s Museo de Arqueología, for a more in-depth look at the Moche ceramics discovered in the area.
In 2006, archaeologists discovered a 1,500-year-old Moche mummy in a tomb located at the top of a burial site called Huaca de Cao. This notable mummy was nicknamed the Lady of Cao. Archaeologists also found the skeleton of a young girl next to the mummy, sacrificed at the time of the burial. Archaeologists realized she was a sacrifice because of the cord found wrapped around her neck.
This tomb gave a lot of insight into the Moche burial practices. There was a face stitched into the textile bundle that covered the mummy’s head. Under the textiles, a gold bowl formed a dome over the Lady of Cao’s face. Tattoos of spiders and snakes covered her arms. Archaeologists can only guess the meanings behind these symbols.
Most distinctively, archaeologists found large, ceremonial copper clubs buried in her mummy bundle, as well as other instruments of war. She also had a V-shaped crown buried with her. Before the discovery of the Lady of Cao, these types of figures were thought to only belong with male mummies. Archaeologists had found priestesses buried nearby, but Lady Cao’s club and crown identify her as some kind of ruler. Her mummy is the first indication that women in Moche culture were able to achieve a high rank.
Visitor tip: To get to El Brujo, you must take a series of unmarked roads. Hire a guide or find a tour group to go with you to these complex ruins.
Ancient Peruvian temples and burial sites have a beauty all their own, but the Museo de Tumbes Reales in Lambayeque gives visitors a look at what the ancient world really looked like. Museo de Tumbes Reales is an elaborate reconstruction of what a Moche pyramid would have looked like during its heyday. It is painted bright red, and contains a huge collection of artifacts discovered in the tomb of the Lord of Sipán.
Museo de Tumbes Reales had a dramatic beginning in 1987, when police raided the residence of a prolific grave robber. Walter Alva, an archaeologist and Moche expert, helped begin excavation of the site where looters had discovered the abundance of artifacts. The site is called Huaca Rajada, which translates to “Cracked Temple” in English. Luckily, the grave robbers had not yet reached the tomb of the nobleman eventually known as The Lord of Sipán. Their tunnels stopped just 3 feet shy of the tomb. Material from the tomb eventually became the main attraction at the Museo de Tumbes Reales.
Visitor tip: Walter Alva helped oversee the collection at another nearby museum, Museo Bruning. Visit if you haven’t yet had your fill of Moche ceramics.
Wari 600 A.D. - 1100 A.D.
The Wari became prominent once the Moche fell into decline. They grew around the modern town of Ayacucho, in the southern Andes. They were able to extend their empire through extensive construction of roads, eventually reaching the northern territory of the Moche. Much like the Moche, archaeologists believe a series of climate disasters and in-fighting led to the Wari's downfall.
Ancash – Near Lima
In 2013 archaeologists discovered a Wari burial at a site called El Castillo de Huarmey, just outside of Lima. Archaeologists had to keep their dig secret, to protect the tomb from robbers. Inside, they discovered mostly women, some of whom they believe to be queens. These women were buried sitting upright, wrapped in textiles. Six bodies found on top of the shrouded figures are believed to be sacrifices, thrown into the tomb before it was sealed. There were 63 bodies in total, which went undisturbed for 1,200 years.
El Castillo de Huarmey contained a large variety of valuables, including golden weaving instruments. There was a room outside of the burial chamber that historians believe may have been used as a spot to venerate the dead queens. Insect material found in their shrouds indicates that the mummies were taken outside after their initial burial, perhaps as part of an ancestral worship ritual. The Inca were known to have had the same kinds of rituals, many hundreds of years later.
Visitor tip: This is an interesting site, but the mummies and precious artifacts from the tomb have been moved to different museums across the country.
Sicán 750 AD – 1375 AD
Sicán civilization spread over the modern Peruvian region of Lambayeque. The Sicán continued the metallurgical practices developed by the Moche, their cultural forerunners. In the 14th century they were conquered by the Chimú people.
There are two main sites that the Sicán people left behind, outside modern-day Chiclayo. Batán Grande was first discovered in 1991 by archaeologist Izumi Shamada, and contains the remains of 36 temples. Túcume probably became the capital of the Sicán culture when the Sicán abandoned Batán Grande after a period of major flooding.
At Túcume, archaeologists have excavated the enormous temple of Huaca Larga, a dig initially led in the 1980s by Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl began his excavation with the help of Walter Ava, who at the same time was uncovering the tombs at Sipán.
Sicán people buried their important dead with giant gold headdresses, evidence of their advanced metallurgical abilities. Similarly to the Wari burial sites, the dead found here were buried sitting upright, with their legs crossed.
Visitor’s tip: Both of these sites’ temples have eroded, and the remains probably don’t do the original structures justice. Visit Museo Sicán to see reconstructions of the burials, and items excavated from tombs at Batán Grande.
Chachapoyas 900 A.D. – 1100 A.D.
Archaeologists have a lot of work left to do to interpret what the Chachapoyas left behind. The Chachapoyas are best known for the high walls they built in their fortress in the cloud forest of the Amazon. These walls contributed to their long resistance of the Inca, who eventually conquered them in the 15th century.
Utcubamba Valley, Amazonas
Kuélap is one of the least visited sites in Peru. This site served as a fortress for the Chachapoyas, and also served as their capital. There is a small, conical building on the site that archaeologists believed served as a miniature temple.
Visitor tip: It is difficult to find reliable directions to Kuélap, or any of the other Chachapoyas sites. We can help set you up with a guided tour so you can avoid getting lost.
Chimú 900 A.D. – 1470 A.D.
The Chimú continued the artistic traditions and language of the Moche people. They occupied the northern Andes of Peru, in much the same territory as the Moche. From the art they left behind, we know that they worshipped the moon, unlike the many sun-worshipping cults of pre-Columbian Peru. In the 15th century, they fell to the Inca.
Chan Chan, located just outside of Trujillo, served as the capital of the Chimú civilization. It once housed around 50,000 people. Visitors today can tour the nine royal compounds, including the royal burial sites.
Much of Chan Chan has eroded, due to a series of disasters. Spaniards took many of the artifacts and floods caused by El Niño destroyed much of the structure. Get an idea of the site’s original splendor at the Tschudi Complex, to see a restored area of Chan Chan. Visitors can walk through the ceremonial area and mausoleum, and you can still see some of the carvings on the walls.
Visitor’s tip: Be wary while walking through the maze of tunnels by yourself. Hire one of the affordable guides outside the entrance.
While you’re in Lima, visit the Museo Larco for an overview of pre-Hispanic culture. This museum has textiles, ceramics, and artifacts from the Moche, Wari, and Chimú cultures.
Inca 1200 – 1532
King Pachacutec is credited with beginning the Inca’s expansion from their capital city, Cusco. Eventually the Inca gained control of the entire coast of Peru, stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile, covering a total of approximately 300,000 square miles (482,803 square kilometers). When the Spanish arrived in 1532, infighting among the Inca had weakened their armies. Eventually a small group of Inca nobles retreated to the Andes. This holdout collapsed in 1572, after the Spanish captured and executed the last Inca emperor, Túpac Amaru.
Machu Picchu, although well known and heavily researched, still holds many unanswered questions for archaeologists. Most recently, Inca experts have identified some of the structures in Machu Picchu as observatories. They deduced this based on the position of some of the windows, configured for an optimum view of the solstices.
Historian Hiram Bingham brought the world’s attention to Machu Picchu in 1911. Although other explorers had seen it, it was Bingham who mustered local workers to clear the plants that choked the site and obscured many of the buildings from view.
Throughout the Sacred Valley of the Inca, the epicenter of Inca civilization, archaeologists have found sprawling examples of Inca agricultural techniques. At sites like Wiñay Wayna, located just off the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu, long rows of agricultural terraces take up the sides of green hills. On these terraces, archaeologists are learning more about how the Inca sustained their population.
Some of the most revealing archaeological sites, like the Inca fort of Sacsayhuamán, cluster around the city of Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire. In 2008, archaeologists discovered the remains of a temple outside of Sacsayhuamán that show traces of both Inca and pre-Inca civilizations.
Visitor tip: The Inca Trail is an amazing, scenic way to arrive at Machu Picchu. But if you’re not up for the hike, the Machu Picchu Train or Inca Rail offer a comfortable ride through the mountains to the site.
Archaeologists don’t always have to dig for their finds. At the Ampato peak in the Andes, in southern Peru, archaeologist Johann Reinhard stumbled upon the mummy of a sacrificed girl, in repose on the side of the mountain. She was killed when she was between 12 and 14, approximately 500 years ago. He discovered her in 1996, soon after the nearby Sabancaya volcano had erupted. This eruption melted the surrounding snow and ice, revealing the tiny bundle of mummified remains. She was nicknamed “Juanita.”
Juanita wore elaborate, high-quality textiles. The textiles and the ceramics found nearby give historians reason to believe she came from Cusco. The conditions on the mountain allowed her body to be freeze-dried, preserving her skin, DNA, and internal organs.
After discovering Juanita, an expedition returned to Ampato to uncover two more sacrificial burials of children. They were buried with figurines of llamas and water vessels, suggesting that the sacrifices would help the Inca ensure agricultural success. Many more expeditions later, a total of 13 mummies have been discovered on Mount Ampato.
Visitor’s tip: You can see Juanita on display in Arequipa, at Museo Santuarios Andinos.
What’s Left to Uncover
In Peru’s busiest cities – Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa – archaeologists are still uncovering the handiwork of long-gone people. For at least 12,000 years, humans in Peru have been building civilizations, dying out, and starting over. Exploring these sites and museums will reveal some of what Peru has to tell us about our beginnings.