Ancient Cultures of Peru

Information on the archaeology, and arts of Peru's fascinating history.

Also, a historical timeline with examples of each pre-Columbian culture's arts of Peru.

For at least four thousand years, monument-building societies, called civilizations built large and complex cities, irrigated whole coastal valleys, worked with gold and other metals, wove textiles of intricate beauty, and made clay vessels that were so vibrant and elegant that they could be seen as sculpture.

They mummified their dead, on the dry coastal sands that naturally preserved their bodies. The oldest archeological site in South America is probably Pikimachay, the flea cave in Peru and dates back to 18,000BCE. Ornaments of melted platinum have been unearthed from the Peruvian plateaus in the north which remained a secret since the melting point of the precious metal is 1800°C. Peru had metallic coinage before 1,000CE which consisted of small copper chips resembling axe blades, and they also used iron refined from metiorites.

The Inca Empire began with the founding of Cuzco by Manco Capac in 1150CE, 50 years after Leif Ericson reached Vineland. The Inca never had the wheel but they were able to build structures like Sacsahuaman which is 1500 ft. long containing 200,000 sculptured stones weighing as much as 75 tons. The Inca were the first to build coated highways from tar taken from natural reserves near Talara, Peru. Archeological treasures are unearthed every day reflecting many of the oldest and some of the world's most cultured civilizations which existed long before Christ.

Sources of valuable information about these people are found through architectural remains, and objects of stone, clay, gold, textiles, and other materials they buried with their dead. The Spanish arts and reports on their experiences with the Inca are another source of important information. Although, this Spanish Colonial material must be viewed and understood with the knowledge of the ideas and prejudices of colonial times.

Accurate chronologies of the cultures of pre-Columbian Peru have been built by archaeologists, even though the looters have over the years caused much destruction of countless artifcts and sold them with no record of where they originated. In the last sixty years many sites have been excavated by archaeologists and they have studied the artifacts and dated them through scientific methods. These researchers have identified successive art styles to establish a cultural sequence for the ancient peoples of Peru. Some periods we now understand a great deal about the people and their way of life, and in other cases we know very little.



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Peru was never completely politically unified until the Inca conquest beginning in about the 13th century. Although, the people evolved a sociocultural complexity with inter-regional exchange that led to the spread of similar artifact styles over a large area through thousands of years. These widespread popular art styles are called an archaeological horizon, and are used to determine contemporaneity between distant sites.

A series of major time periods were organized around this horizon concept. The Preceramaic Period consisted of hunting-gathering and was followed by five periods alternating between relatively widespread art styles of the early Middle, and Late Horizons, and the intervening periods of stylistic differentiation called the early and Late Intermediate Periods. The Late horizon unity was caused by the widespread Inca Empire, and the Middle Horizon reflects smaller-scale states that were quite large. The broad similarity of the Early Horizon cultures was most likely due to the adoption of religious cults by emerging elites in many parts of the Central Andes.

The world timeline on this site provides various art examples of the different ancient cultures and places them in relationship to world history. Visit our map of the ancient cultures of Peru.

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Information about the archaeology, arts and culture of Peru's pre-Columbian Andean and Spanish colonial history.

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