Mention Peru and most people immediately think Inca. The iconic image of Machu Picchu‘s mystical ruins has invaded our collective psyche to such a degree that we tend to associate the country solely with the ancient Inca culture. Unquestionably, the Incas were a force to be reckoned with but they were by no means the only indigenous people in Peru; they were simply the last and best known race because Spanish conquistadors documented their existence after arriving.
Peru was inhabited 14,000 years ago by hunters and gatherers who gradually became sedentary and began to cultivate crops and herd llamas and alpacas. By 3000 BC the Sacred City of Caral-Supe (sometimes referred to as the Norte Chico civilization) was being built on a dry desert terrace just north of present-day Lima, making it the oldest known civilization in the Americas, one of only six sites where civilization originated in the ancient world. Though this 5,000-year old archeological site features six monumental pyramidal structures that show clear evidence of ceremonial functions and a powerful religious ideology, it is barely known outside the region, perhaps because the culture was pre-ceramic and showed no evidence of art, leading some scientists to dispute that it was a true civilization. After the decline of the Caral-Supe civilization around 1800 BC, a series of cities rose up in the northern Andean highlands and along the northern coast of Peru, all of which had rich artistic traditions that left no doubt about their status as true civilizations.
Though Machu Picchu was my prime focus in Peru I also wanted to learn more about these lesser-known cultures, beginning with the Moche civilization that ruled the northern coast from around 1 AD to 700 AD. In Chiclayo, I arranged for a day tour of the Lord of Sipan Tombs, said to contain riches rivaling those of King Tutankhamen’s in Egypt. My tour bus ground to a halt, kicking up billows of mousy brown dust that instantly coated my boots and glasses as I stepped down onto drought-cracked earth. Other than the occasional bush or tree that had gained a foothold in this sere environment, the only relief in the dull plain before me was a pair of unremarkable low mounds with flanks deeply scoured by erosion.
Atop of one of these mounds, sheltered from the swirling dust by tin roofs that protect the excavations, I peered into an exposed crypt that had held the remains of the Lord of Sipan, a 40-year old high-ranking warrior-priest. Today the articles contained within it are only reproductions; the real artifacts have been removed to the nearby Museo Tumbes Reales Del Señor de Sipan (Museum of the Royal Tombs of the Lord of Sipan), where they are safe from looters. The painstakingly recreated tomb is well-done, providing an excellent overview of the full regalia worn by the deceased, including pectoral shields made of shell, bone and stone; blankets adorned with gilded copper platelets; two finely worked metal necklaces; headdresses; feather ornaments; and three sets of turquoise earrings. In his right hand he grips a scepter shaped like an inverted pyramid, while Spondylus shells, used as currency by the Moche; silver and gold rattles; knives; and golden death-masks lay scattered around the tomb.
That so many of the real artifacts have survived is something of a minor miracle. For years looters had been digging around the mounds, hoping to unearth articles of value that could be sold on the black market. At midnight on February 25th, 1987, the police chief of Chiclayo phoned Dr. Walter Alva, Director of Peru’s Bruning Museum, insisting that he immediately come down to the station and examine a sack full of what he believed were stolen artifacts taken from the mounds near the village of Sipan. Expecting to find a few pieces of pottery, Alva peered into the sack; to his surprise it contained Continue reading