Peru’s southern coast was once home to two of the most fascinating cultures of the Americas: the Nazca and the Paracas. Here’s what you should know about them.
These two civilizations left unique imprints in the arid hillsides of the mysterious landscapes of Peru’s coastline. Originally nomadic people, the Paracas (800 b.c and 100 b.c) and Nazca (100 b.c. to 800 a.d.) people began to settle and build complex societies, a feat made possible by their ability to control water for irrigation. Evidence of their presence in the deserts of South America dates back 10,0000 years.
Figures on the desert floor
The Nazca culture is believed to have developed from the Paracas culture. The Nazca were skilled ceramicists and revered by coastal people across the continent. They developed sophisticated medical technologies, including cranial trepanation surgery, a procedure that involves perforating the skull, which was mainly used to treat head and brain injuries.
Both the Paracas and the Nazca people controlled the desert, and used it as a canvas to create geoglyphs of animals, people and mythological beings, many of which are only visible from the air. Recorded for the first time in the 16th century by Spanish explorer Cieza de León, the lines were powerful, religious symbols that ancient people adored and worshiped with music and ceremony.
The Nazca culture and the center of Cahuachi
The Nazca culture’s epicenter was the Usaca desert, where the ceremonial center of Cahuachi is located. The site is currently under excavation, headed by archaeologist Guiseppe Oreficci. The research area measures 24 square meters and is dotted by more than 30 buried adobe pyramids. The area is united by ramps, plazas, and stairways made of distinct types of adobe that mark different periods in which Cahuachi was built.
Nazca Lines, booming trade, and El Niño
Cahuachi housed the elite, who influenced the culture’s religious ideology, eventually leading to the creation the Nazca Lines. The Nazca developed artistic aesthetics that included textiles, ceramics, and metalurgy. Their cultural influence extended north to south, from Arequipa, into the Amazon and south to Chile.
Evidence in feathers, animals, and minerals show they traded to and from distant civilizations. Their civilization fell apart in the 7th century due to a particularly strong El Niño phenomenon, bringing intense rain and massive landslides.
One of their greatest marks: agriculture and working with water
The Nazca designed aqueducts using boulders and Algarrobo tree trunks to take water from high in the Andes and bring it to the desert. Archaeologists have found the remains of over 60 of these aqueducts, including ones in Cantayo, Ocongalla, Aja, and Bisambra.
The Nazca people’s ability to control water brought forth a thriving time of agricultural development. They cultivated cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, and other tubers. This complimented their diet of fish and shellfish, which they harvested in the San Fernando Bay. This was also when they started constructing petroglyphs across their landscapes.
At places such as Chichictara (in Palpa) and Majuelo, petroglyphs made by the Paracas culture seem to refer to space. Offerings and religious symbols are also present.
Post-Nazca archaeological sites
After the collapse of the Nazca people, the Wari, and later the Chincha cultures emerged. The Inca then conquered the region before the Spanish arrived in 1532. The lost city of Huayuri, an urban center built of rock and surrounded by mountains in the high area of Palpa, is an archaeological remain from this period.
In Nazca itself, the Paradones archaeological site, called Caxmarca by the Incas, is the only one left by the Incas. Further north on the Los Libertadores Highway, Tambo Colorado is another important site where visitors can appreciate the influence of coastal architecture on classic Andean design.
Credit: Ultimate Journeys Peru
Cover photo: Matthew Goulding/Flickr
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