Chimu gold attire on display at Museo Larco in Lima, Peru

Ancient Cultures of Peru

Before the Inca arrived on the scene, the Andean region was home to many flourishing cultures. Some of them flourished for a few hundred years and then declined, but none of them grow up to the level of the Inca Empire in size and sophistication.

The Inca Empire expanded quickly by taking control of the territories around the Andean region. When the Inca conquered a culture, their culture and practices got assimilated into the Inca culture. Unlike the Spanish, the Inca were accepting of the religions and traditions of the conquered culture. They utilized the expertise from the conquered people to build a bigger and mightier empire.

Unlike their northern neighbors like the Maya, none of the ancient cultures in South America had a writing system. To differentiate a culture in such cases, archaeologists typically use the style of pottery created by that culture. Because people needed pots for many day-to-day tasks, such as cooking, eating and drinking, there is an abundance of pottery in the archaeological sites. Pottery provides a glimpse into their world as pots tell us about their lifestyle, religious beliefs and rituals, and relationship with nature and animals.

Wari (Huari)

The Wari culture flourished from 500 CE to 1000 CE in the south-central and coastal region of Peru. Experts believe that the Wari people were the inventors of the terrace agriculture, which the Inca later improved by employing new techniques, including the use of aqueducts in water management.

The Wari also pioneered the concept of centralized administration and built a network of roads to help control their empire. The Incas later used this network and extended it to govern their empire from a central place.

The Wari borrowed many aspects of their religion and rituals from the Tiwanaku culture that flourished in southern Peru and Bolivia. They worshiped the same staff god  – which is an iconographic figure holding a staff in each hand –  as Tiwanaku. The staff god later became Viracocha in the Inca religion.

Pottery from the Wari culture on display at Museo Larco
Wari Pottery on display at Museo Larco


Famous for their geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines, the Nazca culture flourished from 100 CE to 800 CE in the southern coast of Peru. The Nazca also left some amazing pottery that was beautiful and expressive.

Nazca whale and pottery on display at Museo Larco
Nazca whale and pottery on display at Museo Larco

The image below shows a ceramic drum most likely used as a funerary object.

Nazca drum on display at Museo Larco
Nazca drum on display at Museo Larco

Moche (Mochica)

The Moche culture flourished in northern Peru from 100 CE to 700CE. It is also known as Mochica because it is one of the languages they spoke. The Moche were contemporary with the Nazca culture in the south.

Not much is known about the religion Moche practiced. They mostly worshiped a moon goddess and considered the moon was more powerful than the sun, although they had temples for both the moon and sun.

There is enough archaeological evidence of Moche engaging in human sacrifice as a ritual. The Moche seemed to have sacrificed their enemy combatants and ritually consumed their blood. There is no evidence of them sacrificing women and children,

Experts are not sure about the reasons for the demise of the Moche culture.  Some of the reasons attributed to their decline are earthquakes, drought, flooding, and the El Niño phenomenon. In a couple of hundred years after their demise,  the Chimu culture arose in the same area and borrowed many ideas from the Moche culture.

Arts and Crafts

The Moche are known for their artistic expression, especially in their pottery.  Moche pottery is one of the most beautiful and artistic potteries in the world. Their pots are multi-colored and expressive, and they depict everyday life, rituals, deities, animals.

Moche Warrior on display at Museo Larco
Moche Warrior pot on display at Museo Larco

Moche pottery on display at Museo Larco

Erotic Pottery

One of the unusual aspects of Moche pottery is the depiction of explicit sex acts, including sex between a man and woman, a man and man, and between animals. It appears that the Moche society was never shy about their sexuality. Only the sculptures of  Khajuraho, India are more explicit than the erotic pottery of Moche.

Moche erotic pottery on display at Museo Larco


Moche ornaments on display at Museo Larco

Lambayeque (Sican)

The Lambayenque culture, also known as the Sican culture, flourished on the northern coast of Peru between 750 CE and 1375 CE. They seem to have inherited many concepts from both the Wari and Moche cultures. Unlike the Wari and Moche, the Lambayenque were not expansionist and their kingdom consisted of loosely coupled cities. The Chimu culture eventually conquered and assimilated them into their culture.

The image below shows the funerary attire consisting of a shirt and a loincloth belonging to the Lambayenque culture.

Funerary clothes from Lambayenqu culture on display at Museo Larco
Funerary clothes from Lambayenqu culture on display at Museo Larco


The Chimu culture succeeded the Moche and flourished in northern Peru from 1000 CE until they were conquered by the Inca in 1470 CE.  Unlike the Inca,  the Chimu worshiped the moon and considered it more powerful than the sun, an idea they inherited from the Moche. When the Inca conquered the Chimu and imposed their religion on them, there was discontent among the Chimu people. The Spanish exploited this discontent to their advantage.

The Chimu people spoke Yunga and Mochica, both of which are now extinct. The Chimu created new cities and the most important among them was their capital Chan Chan.

Arts and Crafts

The Chimu are also well-known for their arts and crafts. There is some similarity between Moche and Chimu pottery.  Moche pottery is multi-colored and expressive whereas Chimu pottery is mostly black and mass-produced as the Chimu were more technologically advanced than the Moche.

Besides pottery, the Chimu culture was famous for its expertise in metal works, especially working with metals like gold and silver. The images below show the fine gold jewelry created by the Chimu artisans.

Chimu gold jewelry on display at Museo Larco

The image below shows a silver bowl with birds (most likely pelicans) embossed on the outer surface. This bowl was likely used by the Chimu for ceremonial purposes.

Chimu ceremonial silver vessel displayed at Museo Larco
Chimu ceremonial silver vessel on display at Museo Larco

The Chimu also knew how to create fine textiles from cotton, llama, alpaca and vicuña yarns.

When the Inca conquered the Chimu, they realized the value of the Chimu artisans and moved some of them to their capital Cuzco.

Just like the Moche, there is some evidence to suggest that the Chimu were also engaged in rituals of human sacrifice. But unlike the Moche, they seem to have sacrificed children to please various gods.


The Cupisnique culture flourished between 1500 BCE to 500 BCE in northern Peru. The Moche culture succeeded Cupisnique and borrowed many ideas from them.

Cupisnique pottery on display at Museo Larco
Cupisnique pottery on display at Museo Larco

The image below shows a 3000-year-old stone sculpture of a female deity believed to belong to the Cupisnique culture. This deity was found in the Temple of Pacopampa in the Cajamarca region, which is located on the northern highlands of Peru.

Cupisnique goddess on display at Museo Larco
Cupisnique goddess on display at Museo Larco

In 2009, a team of Japanese archaeologists discovered the tomb of a sophisticated woman in the Temple of Pacopampa. Now known as The Lady of Pacopampa, she had her skull deformed deliberately at childhood and buried with gold earrings, seashell necklaces, and ceramic pottery, which led many experts to believe that she must have been a high-ranking person in the society, probably the queen or a high priestess.


The Paracas culture flourished from 800 BCE to 100 BCE in the Ica region of Peru. They are well-known for textiles and water management. Paracas textiles typically used alpaca yarn. The image below shows a 2500-year-old Paracas mantle with beautiful embroidery.

2500 year old funerary clock from the Paracas culture on display at Museo Larco
2500-year-old funerary clock from the Paracas culture on display at Museo Larco

Saksaywaman near Cuzco, Peru


The Kilke culture flourished from 900 CE to 1200 CE in the Cuzco region of Peru. Not much is known about them. There is little pottery or other artifacts attributed to them. However, experts believe that they built the massive structure in Saksaywaman near Cuzco. See the image below.

Because of its structure and the style, historians widely believe Saksaywaman was a fortress and not a temple. Some of the stones used in the structure were so massive that they weighed between 90 to 120 tons. Stones were of different sizes and shapes but were perfectly fused together like a Jigsaw puzzle. It is not fully understood how this structure was constructed by the people who did not have sophisticated tools or machinery.

Saksaywaman near Cuzco, Peru

When the Inca conquered the Kilke, they expanded the fortress further. After the Spanish conquered the Inca, they destroyed as much as they can and reused the stones to build other structures such as churches.

Copyright © 2017  –  2019 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.


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