Skip to main content
View of a bird carving from the sky carved out of the ground by the Nazca people more than a thousand years ago.

The major civilisations of Peru that you didn’t know of

We are all well too familiar with the Inca civilisation: think Machu Picchu, think huge terraces on the cliffs of mountains and think the handover of Incan territory to the Spanish conquerors. Essentially, Peru has marketed itself as the pride of the Incas. Peruvians are seen as the descendants of the once-powerful civilisation that ruled most parts of South America. Unsurprisingly, most tourists arrive and leave Peru with only the memories of Inca traditions and history. Yet, Peru is so much more than just the Incas. In fact, the Incan history of about 100 years only represents a fragment of Peru’s lustrous history of grand civilisations. More than a thousand years before the Incas, Peru was already the epicentre of various powerful civilisations. Here are some of the grandest civilisations of Peru that you probably have not heard of:

1) NazcaView of a bird carving from the sky carved out of the ground by the Nazca people more than a thousand years ago.

The Nazcas lived more than 1500 years before the Incas and survived for more than 700 years. The civilisation is famous for its enormous carvings of pictures that can only be seen from the sky. These carvings are located on vast desert plains near the city of Nazca. It is amazing to see these magnificent carvings from an airplane and to admire the almost perfect shapes. I cannot imagine the coordination required to create these masterpieces. Witnessing the dozens of huge drawings across the vast fields was impressive. No other civilisation could have accomplished such a work of art at that time.

2) Moche

View of one of the many carvings of the gods that the Moche people believed in, on the walls of the Huaca de la Luna in Trujillo.

If there were a civilisation that was comparable to the Egyptians, I would say that the Moche civilisation came pretty close. Its language of hieroglyphics, concept of rites and the belief in the sun and moon were very similar to that of the Egyptians. Near the city of Trujillo, two large Moche temples can still be seen. From afar, the two temples (Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol or Temples of the Moon and Sun) stand majestically tall above the modern houses.

View of the facade of the Huaca Sun Temple, with carvings of soldiers and animals.

Touring around the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) was a mind-blowing experience. Many of the millennia-old carvings were still very well-preserved, and the huge walls of artwork took my breath away. I was very impressed by the dedication the Moche people had for their beliefs, and the extent they would go to build such a temple. As of now, the Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) is still left unearthed. I cannot help but imagine how magnificent the artwork will be should it be restored one day.

View of the tomb of Lord Sipan and the other royalties at the site of his burial near Chiclayo.

If you would like to learn more about the Moche civilisation, do also visit the Tomb of Lord Sipan and the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan. Both are located near the city of Chiclayo, north of Trujillo. The Tomb of Lord Sipan is a site of royal mummies well adorned with the most expensive jewels at that time. Many of the burial items can be found in the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan. This gives you an insight to the wealth of the Moche civilisation, and the golden ages that the Moche people enjoyed.

3) Chimu

View of the adobe brick walls and the carvings on the walls from the city of Chan Chan near Trujillo, the largest city of the Chimu civilisation.

The capital of the Chimu civilisation was Chan Chan, an adobe brick city located near the city of Trujillo. Chan Chan is also the largest city built with adobe bricks ever discovered. The Chimus enjoyed 500 years of rule before the Incas conquered them. Much of the Chimu culture was derived from the Moche civilisation. As such, many of the carvings and artwork on the walls of Chan Chan had great resemblances to those of the Moche cities. Chan Chan is a huge city, and it will take hours to see the public areas of the site. Hopefully, this would help you understand the grandeur and power of the Chimu civilisation.

4) Chachapoyas

View of the mountains and cloud forests from Kuelap, in the Chachapoyas region.

Unlike most of Peru’s greatest civilisations that existed near the coast, the Chachapoyas civilisation lived near the Amazon. Also known as the “cloud forest people”, the Chachapoyas people lived in forests at altitude, which explained the common presence of clouds and fog. Due to its hidden location deep in the valleys, the Chachapoyas lived comfortably for nearly a thousand years before the Incas conquered them.

View of the foundations of the circular houses that were built in the city of Kuelap, one of the main cities of the Chachapoyas civilisation.

Amongst the archaeological sites of the different civilisations, I enjoyed the Chachapoyas sites most. Many of the ancient cities were located deep in the forests and on mountains. As such they command incredible vistas of the valleys around them. Kuelap is the most well preserved Chachapoyas city, with its characteristic round stone houses. The architectural style of Kuelap is unique, and different from that of any other major civilisations in Peru. To witness a ruins of concentric circles was actually quite special for me, as most ancient civilisations use a grid-like layout to plan their cities.

View of the sarcophaguses perched along the cliff wall at Carajia, near the city of Chachapoyas.

Yet the Chachapoyas is not just about Kuelap. The Chachapoyas also had a unique way of burying the dead. The people carved sarcophaguses for the dead, and placed them on the cliff walls of mountains. From afar, you can easily spot a set of sarcophaguses, standing precariously along the cliffs. One group of sarcophaguses can be found at Carajia, which is near the city of Chachapoyas. While you admire the carvings, you will also wonder how the people traversed the entire cliff in order to erect these sarcophaguses.

 

Indeed, whenever people talk about Peru, they will definitely talk about the Incan civilisation. While it only ruled the area for about 100 years, it is the biggest pride of Peruvians, and also the biggest interest factor for tourists to Peru. Machu Picchu is beautiful, and the historical city of Cusco is stunning, but Peru is not just about the Incas.

Take some time off your vacation to Peru to explore the other major civilisations of Peru as well. You will be surprised how different they are from the Incas, and how each of them unique differentiates from one another. Exploring these other major civilisations of Peru was an eye-opening experience for me, and it helped me appreciate the diversity of cultures and history in Peru. There are so many things to do in Peru, and you should not miss the exploration of civilisations in this history-filled country.

 

Did you enjoy reading this article? Do share it with your friends on social media. Also, I am eager to hear you comments! Have you seen the sites of other civilisations in Peru? Or, maybe you have a question to ask?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.