Peruvian archaeology

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 new sites right under everyone’s noses. In 2006, archaeologists discovered a large mound called Huaca Huantille had served as a burial mound for the Ichma, the people who lived in Lima from 1000 AD to 1400 AD. Homeless people used the mound as a shelter for many years, probably unaware of the bones that lay inside the ruin just beneath them.

Archaeologists are now in a race against the shovels of the many grave robbers in Peru. For over 500 hundred years, struggling peasants have used their intimate knowledge of the landscape to look for graves and uncover veins of gold and artifacts. Grave robbers are called huaqueros, deriving from the word huaca—the Quechuan word for temple. To find a burial site, grave robbers will sometimes simply use a spear to stab the earth where they think they might find a burial site, looking for hollow ground. Once they find a tomb, the huaqueros grab the colorful jewelry and push the bones aside. Some technological advances have, however, been useful in helping stop grave robbers. Drones have been employed for surveillance, to keep track of which sites have attracted illegal digging.

Peruvian archaeological sites have more to fear besides 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 República region of Peru. According to the Cultural Ministry in Peru, 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 take advantage of some of the ancient treasures underfoot. Rogue vendors may try to sell you an ancient Peruvian artifact. Police sometimes raid stores selling actual artifacts. As you stroll the streets of Peru, especially those of nearby an ancient ruin, be wary of merchants offering to sell you ancient artifacts. Chances are high that they aren’t real, but if they are, it’s illegal to purchase them 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 who have called Peru home over the eras.

Ancient Peru

Sechín Bajo 3500 B.C.

Begin your exploration of Peruvian archaeology at the beginning. In 2008, archaeologists uncovered this 5,500-year-old city. 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’s known of their remains.

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, making these the oldest remains of a city in South America. Before the discovery of Sechín Bajo, Caral was thought to be the oldest ruins in South America.

Aside from its sheer age, visit Caral to see the crumbling pyramids and the circular courtyards. These are building styles that were passed down and replicated over many generations of Peruvian history.

Chavín 1500 B.C. – 300 B.C.

Archaeologists believe Chavín de Huántar started 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.

Nazca 200 B.C. – 600 A.D.

You will often hear the Nazca people described as “mysterious”–a mysterious people who left behind mysterious designs, and went on to disappear, mysteriously.

But a recent study of the Nazca desert suggests a more straightforward explanation for their disappearance. The Nazca harvested the haurango tree, a tree with deep roots which 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.

The pre-Columbian Era

Many civilizations settled on the Northern Coast of Peru because of the huge variety of seafood available in that part of the Pacific. 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 broadly described as either the pre-Columbian or pre-Hispanic era, terms that refer to the time before Europeans arrived.

Moche 100 B.C. – 850 A.D.

The Moche dominated the 2,500-square mile (6,475-square kilometer) territory in northern Peru. 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 information about weather patterns gathered by climate researchers, suggests that the Moche faced a series of intense floods and droughts that led to their demise.


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 the 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.

Trujillo is home to Museo Casinelli, with its notorious cache of erotic Moche ceramics. Much of this collection had to be purchased from grave robbers. Also visit Trujillo’s Museo de Arqueología, for a more in-depth look at the Moche ceramics discovered in the area.

El Brujo

In 2006, archaeologists discovered 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 Lady of Cao’s burial. They realized she was a sacrifice because of the cord found wrapped around her neck.

This burial 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. She wore a necklace made of heads, and had a V-shaped crown buried with her. 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. 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 the Lady of 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.


Ancient Peruvian temples and burial sites have a beauty of 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 their heyday. It is painted bright red, and contains a huge collection of artifacts discovered nearby.

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, came to examine the loot and helped begin excavation of the site where looters had already discovered an abundance of artifacts.

Archaeologists went to the site where the huaqueros had uncovered much of their loot. 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 (0.9 metmers) shy of the tomb. Material from the tomb eventually became the main attraction at the Museo de Tumbes Reales.

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