Ancient Lima: Prehispanic Capital


The areas surrounding Lima are filled with ruins and sacred sights. Some are more well-known than others. Here is some history of Limas important sights, and suggestions on where you can go to learn more.

Taking bicycle trips to visit Lima’s ruins

Photo: Good Free Photos

Nils Castro is a 37 year old Peruvian teacher, and a proud founder member of Circulo Ciclista Protector de las Huacas, a private initiative consisting of artists, archaeologists, designers, teachers, and actors, whose aim is to encourage the use of bicycles as vehicles for recording local heritage.

“It is also our responsibility. If institutions don’t protect them, then we have to do so ourselves”, he says. On the last Sunday of each month, Nils organizes a bicycle ride around different Lima huacas (sacred sights), from the most popular to those ignored by the bustling city. “There are more than five hundred huacas in the city of Lima”, he adds enthusiastically like someone with many more routes to design. You can take part in the trips for free; all you need is a bicycle, two legs and a bottle of water.

Lima has a deeper history than most people realize

Although books on the history of Peru tell us that Lima was founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro, before that time Lima, consisting of the valleys of the rivers Chillon, Rimac and Lurin, was a perfect place for the development of socially complex cultures. The three valleys contain plenty of cultivable lands and because they are close to the Pacific Ocean with its rich biomass, food was plentiful. Evidence has been found that the area was occupied in the 10th Century B.C., by groups of nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. A process known as neollithisation began (5000-1800 B.C.), in which these family clans began to form small communities, such as those found at Cerro Paloma and in the district of Chilca, which were strongly dependent on fishing and marine resources.

This process saw the construction of the first public architecture, complexes of three buildings arranged in a horseshoe shape and having a ritual character, like the Huaca Paraiso, recently dated to around 4200 B.C.

Humans learn new skills and build new cities

Photo: Flickr

The historian Jose Canziani Amico explains that the transition to the Formative Period (1800-500 B.C.) saw a series of important transformations. People started domesticating plants and animals and started integrating new forms of land management. People also got more knowledgeable about how to use tools. All of these developments helped people to build more advanced societies, reflected in the ruins that we find in the areas around Lima. The first cities appeared in what is known as the Early Regional Development Period (500 B.C. – 700 B.C.) That was the period in which great strides were made in ceramics, textiles, and silverware, huge irrigation complexes were built, vastly increasing crop yields and a new economy was built on the increasing availability of surplus production. These new parameters created a new statist approach to territory, examples of which are the archaeological complexes at Cajamarquilla, Pachacamac, and Maranga. The latter is particularly interesting as it covers 4 square kilometers in the heart of the city of Lima and was nothing less than the center of the Lima Culture (200 – 600 A.D.)


At this amazing site, there are 14 monumental pyramids, 50 smaller buildings with ramps, walled dwellings, squares, residential areas, storehouses, cemeteries, irrigation canals, and other items.


Pachacamac is undoubtedly the most spectacular complex in the region. Like Maranga and Cajamarquilla, this complex of 4.6 square kilometers was originally built by the Lima Culture, which occupied it until the 7th Century, when the Wari (6 00-1100) overwhelmed the region bringing with them, among other things, their religious influences. According to Denisse Pozzi-Escot, director of the Pachacamac complex, it was during the Wari occupation that the site became an extremely important destination for pilgrims, that endured and strengthened during the Ychma Culture (1100-1470 A.D.), and then the Incas (1470-1532 A.D.)

Big changes with the arrival of the Spanish

Photo: Wikimedia

Then the Spanish arrived, led by Francisco Pizarro, and Lima was founded officially. Archaeologist Julio Rucabado, in charge of records and collections of the Pachacamac complex, imagines the Lima valley in the pre-Hispanic period as full of farms and irrigation canals, with two large urban centers (Pachacamac and Maranga) at either end and smaller settlements scattered between them. Examples of the latter being Pucllana, Mateo Salado and Huallamarca, sites in an excellent state of preservation that have managed against all the odds to survive in the middle of a metropolis of 10 million inhabitants.

The 20th-century expansion of Lima has put many ruins at risk

Throughout the 20th Century, Lima experienced a demographic explosion, especially after the nineteen sixties—when it had fewer than two million inhabitants— caused by massive migration from the countryside to the city. Since then the city has grown rapidly without order or control. New neighborhoods appeared in the desert; rough tracks became paved roads; there was greater demand for housing, food, and services. The city carried everything before it.

And unfortunately, archaeological remains were no exception. Being an archaeologist in Lima is a heroic calling. They fight against the overwhelming urban growth, against deficient conservation policies, against the eternal lack of money and against an enormous number of remains that can certainly not be restored in their entirety. However, Lima has a number of conservation initiatives that are open to the public and included in tourist circuits.

Government initiatives to support sacred sights in the Lima area

Pachacamac is one of them, and today has a refurbished site museum that enables visitors to understand better the process of occupation and development of the most important religious center on the Andean coast. With illustrative and instructive displays, the museum has a collection of offerings to the god Pachacamac consisting of ceramics, textiles, and jewelry from different eras, as well as explanations about the cultures that made it famous. Huaca Mateo Salado, on the other hand, is a complex consisting of five stepped and truncated pyramids that functioned as an administrative and ceremonial center for one of the local chieftains —we do not know for certain which— of the Ychma Culture.

“Its size and monumental nature, despite later overbuilding, show that in certain stages an enormous amount of work was invested in this site, involving the shifting of thousands of cubic meters of earth and stones. This implies that the site was very important and that the governing elites of the day had enough power to persuade hundreds of people to work voluntarily on the construction of temples, roads and other large architectural projects. The Ychmas people did not receive “wages”, though the chieftain or priest was obliged to provide clothing and food in return for their labor”, explains Pedro Espinoza, project director.

Huaca Pucllana, where night visits were inaugurated a short time ago to take advantage of the attractive lighting, is much older than Mateo Salado. It was built during the later period of the Lima Culture and consists of the main pyramid with lower buildings around it made from mud bricks. The complex appears to have been abandoned and then used as a cemetery by the Ychma. Lima also contains three museums that provide a more detailed view of Peruvian pre-Hispanic history.

Important museums to find out more about Archaeology

Photo: Wikimedia

The National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History is the oldest state-run museum, founded in 1826, and covers the history of Peru from the beginning of local civilization until the Republican era. It has a huge collection of stone artifacts, ceramics, textiles and silverware from the different Peruvian cultures.

The Larco Museum, on the other hand, founded by Rafael Larco Hoyle in 1926, is housed in a viceregal mansion built over a pre-Hispanic pyramid dating from the 7th Century. It contains the most comprehensive collection of pre-Hispanic gold and silver objects and erotic art, part of a total of more than 45,000 archaeological finds: mute testimony to three thousand years of Peruvian history. Finally, the Amano Museum displays a unique collection of pre-Hispanic textiles from eleven cultures, under modern conservation conditions.

Caral: The Oldest Civilization in the Americas

Photo: Wikimedia

Located in the Supe valley, 182 kilometers from the city of Lima, the Caral ruins have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and have changed our conception of the earliest societies in America. It dates from 3000 B.C., making it as old as the Mesopotamian (3700 B.C.) or Egyptian civilizations (3500 B.C.) and replacing the Olmeca Culture (1200 B.C.) in Mexico as the oldest in America.

The complex consists of numerous pyramids, circular open spaces, galleries, and dwellings; all the buildings suggest that religious rites were frequently practiced. Musical instruments such as flutes, quenas, whistles, and horns have been found, as well as quipus; objects that speak of a complex social organization. According to the leading expert on Caral, Ruth Shady, the city may have been conceived as a great calendar, given that each public building was related to one of the deities of the Caral pantheon and with a certain star position.







Credit: Ultimate Journeys Peru



Diego Oliver is a Peruvian writer and author whose work can be found in the travel magazine Ultimate Journeys. He loves to focus on Peruvian culture both modern and classic, traveling the country, as well as social responsibility.