Discover the history of the Lima region, an area that thrived as a focal point for ancient societies long before the arrival of the Spanish. Here’s what to know and how you can visit Lima’s pre-Hispanic sites.
Though Lima was founded by Francisco Pizarro for Spain in 1535, the area’s history begins much earlier. Lima encompasses the river valleys Chillon, Rimac and Lurin. It was a perfect place for the development of socially complex cultures. The three valleys contain plenty of arable land, rich in biomass where food was plentiful.
Evidence shows 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 occurred around 5000-1800 B.C., in which family clans began to form small communities, such as those found at Cerro Paloma and in the district of Chilca. These areas were strongly dependent on fishing and marine resources.
This process saw the first public architectural constructions, large complexes such as the Huaca Paraiso: three buildings arranged in a horseshoe shape used for rituals, which dates back to 4200 B.C.
The rise of cities & complex societies
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 the creation of advanced societies, reflected in the ruins found around Lima.
The first cities appeared in what is known as the Early Regional Development Period (500 B.C. – 700 B.C.). Great strides were made in ceramics, textiles, and silverware. Complex irrigation systems 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.).
Located on the left bank of the Rimac river, and in between the University of San Marcos and the Pontific Catholic University of Peru, this site includes 14 astounding pyramids. It also includes 50 smaller buildings with ramps, walled dwellings, squares, residential areas, storehouses, cemeteries, irrigation canals, and other items.
Pachacamac is a 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. The Wari (6 00-1100) then occupied 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, which endured and strengthened during the Ychma culture (1100-1470 A.D.), and then the Incas (1470-1532 A.D.) Learn more about Pachacamac here.
Before the arrival of the Spanish
Before Pizarro founded the city of Lima 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.
Lima’s 20th-century expansion put many ruins at risk
Throughout the 20th century, Lima experienced a demographic explosion, caused by massive migration from the countryside to the city. Since then the city has grown rapidly with very little 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.
With weak urban planning, you can say that archaeologists in Lima is a heroic calling. Their duty calls for fighting against overwhelming urban growth, against deficient conservation policies, 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.
Initiatives to support sacred sights in the Lima area
Pachacamac is one such example. A refurbished site museum enables visitors to better understand the process of occupation and development of the most important religious center along the Pacific coast.
Huaca Mateo Salado is another grand example. Located in Lima’s center, it consists 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 project director Pedro Espinoza.
The Huaca Pucllana is much older than Mateo Salado. It was built during the later period of the Lima culture and consists of a main pyramid with lower buildings made from mud bricks. The complex appears to have been abandoned and then used as a cemetery by the Ychma.
Museums showcasing archaeological finds
The National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History is the oldest state-run museum, founded in 1826 and covering the history of Peru from the beginning of local civilization through the Republican era. It has a huge collection of stone artifacts, ceramics, textiles and silverware from various Peruvian cultures.
The Larco Museum was founded by Rafael Larco Hoyle in 1926 and 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, which numbers more than 45,000 archaeological finds.
The Amano Museum houses a unique collection of pre-Hispanic textiles from eleven cultures, under modern conservation conditions.
Caral: The oldest civilization in the Americas
Located in the Supe valley, 182 kilometers from the city of Lima, Caral was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and has 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 replaces 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: a recording device made out of string which speaks 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.
Visit the huacas in Lima by bicycle
Nils Castro is a thirty-seven-year-old Peruvian teacher and a proud founding 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 monument), 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.
Credit: Ultimate Journeys Peru
Cover photo: Julio Martinich/Flickr
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