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Brief historical overview


More than 15,000 years ago, people from Asia migrated to a coastal and mountainous land, now known as Peru. By 6,000 BCE, civilizations had formed. Significant evidence of irrigated farmlands and domesticated animals dates back almost 5,000 years. Some irrigation canals found in northern Peru are between 5400 and 6700 years old.


The first known city in the Americans with a significant population, large public buildings, and a complex administrative structure, Caral, about 200 km north of Lima, dates back to 2,500 BCE.  It is one of only six world centers of the rise of civilization.  By 300 BCE the Paracas culture was distinguishing itself in textiles by using vicuna fibers instead of cotton to produce fine weavings.


So for thousands of years, Peru has been home to societies of people who created 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.


In the 1500s, the Spanish conquered Peru  -- and Peru changed. Its older religious and cultural traditions were supplanted, and in some cases, augmented by Spanish ideas and culture. So a new Peru emerged – new arts, festivals, and traditions. And in the 21st Century, a renewed appreciation for native and fusion cuisine has developed, the arts are flourishing, and reconnecting with the natural beauty and wonders of Peru through environmentally sensitive travel are in the forefront.


Today travelers to Peru visit a multi-layered magical place, one rich with ancient sites and traditions, where many people live as they have for thousands of years, close to the land; one that has been influenced by Spanish culture but has kept its core; and a Peru with a kind and friendly attention to showing tourists its beauty, creativity, and magic.


Inca Empire


When we think of Peru, we often think of the Inca Empire, that mysterious and complex civilization with its capital at Cusco, Peru. Although we think of the Inca Empire as ancient, when you visit Peru, you will also see and feel the thousands of years of civilization that came before – in other archaeological sites and in the way many Peruvians still live.


Myths surround the founding of the Inca Empire. One story says it was founded by Manco Capac in the 12th century CE. One dominant myth imbues him with a super-human origin, saying Capac was the son of the sun and his sister, Mama Occlo, was the daughter of the moon. Our knowledge of the founding of the Inca Empire is shrouded in mystery. That is fitting as so much about the culture seems beyond the day-to-day realm.


Structures like Sacsahuaman, a walled complex at 12,000 feet, contains within it more than 200 individual archaeological sites. The Sacsahuaman complex is constructed of more than 200,000 sculptured stones weighing as much as 75 tons each. And the Incas did not have wheels. They had to roll stones up on wooden beams on earthen ramps.


When the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532, they could not believe Sacsahuaman was built by humans and thought it was constructed by creatures from other worlds or extraterrestrial beings.


Sacsahuaman is just one of many thousands of mysterious and breath-taking archaeological sites in Peru.  Of course, Machu Picchu, a 15th Century Inca site and UNESCO World Heritage Site, always inspires awe. Machu Picchu stands close to 8,000 feet above sea level in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, an extraordinary setting.


Situated on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley through which the Urubamba River flows, Machu Picchu is believed to have been built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472).

Built around 1450, Machu Picchu was abandoned by the Incas a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Some of Machu Picchu has been destroyed over time but much has been restored.

Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana (Hitching post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu.


Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.


The arts speak


Early Peruvians, before and during the Inca time, buried many objects with their dead, so burial sites, in addition to architectural sites, yield treasure troves of insights into the lives and artistic sophistication of the Peruvian people. Through studying architectural sites in addition to stone, clay, gold, and textile artifacts and dating them through scientific methods, researchers have identified successive art styles to establish a cultural sequence for the ancient peoples of Peru. It is important to note, however, that many, many artifacts have been looted and/or destroyed, so the exact chronology and full extent of the Peruvian cultural heritage is still somewhat of a mystery.


Spanish arts and reports on their experiences with the Inca are another source of important information about Peru’s people. (Although Spanish Colonial material must be viewed and understood in the context of the ideas and prejudices of colonial times.)


Because of Cultural Expeditions’ dedication to the arts and culture of Peru, the Gallery provides some examples of artifacts from different Peruvian cultural time periods. Other useful resources are our map of the ancient cultures of Peru and the World History Timeline.






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