The Archaeology of Peru and the Central Andes

Culture Areas of Ancient Peru and Central Andes

A mountain range in the Pervuian Andes
Bettmann / Getty Images

Ancient Peru traditionally corresponds to the South American area of the Central Andes, one of the archaeological macro-areas of South America archaeology.

Beyond encompassing all Peru, the Central Andes reach toward the north, the border with Ecuador, westward the lake Titicaca basin in Bolivia, and south the border with Chile.

The amazing ruins of the Moche, Inca, Chimú, along with Tiwanaku in Bolivia, and the early sites of Caral and Paracas, among many others, make the Central Andes probably the most studied area of all South America.

For a long time, this interest in Peruvian archaeology has been at the expense of other South American regions, affecting not only our knowledge about the rest of the continent but also the connections of the Central Andes with other areas. Fortunately, this trend is now reversing, with archaeological projects focusing on all South American regions and their reciprocal relations.

Central Andes Archaeological Regions

The Andes obviously represent the most dramatic and important landmark of this sector of South America. In ancient times, and to some extent, in the present, this chain shaped the climate, the economy, the communication system, the ideology and religion of its inhabitants. For this reason, archaeologists have subdivided this region into different zones from north to south, each separated into coast and highland.

Central Andes Culture Areas

  • Northern Highlands: it includes the valley of the Marañon river, the Cajamarca valley, Callejon de Huaylas (where the important site of Chavin de Huantar is located, and home of the Recuay culture) and Huanuco valley; North Coast: Moche, Viru, Santa and Lambayeque valleys. This subarea was the heart of the Moche culture and the Chimu kingdom.
  • Central Highlands: Mantaro, Ayacucho (where the site of Huari is located) valleys; Central Coast: Chancay, Chillon, Supe, and Rimac valleys. This subarea was strongly influenced by the Chavin culture and has important Preceramic and Initial period sites.
  • Southern Highlands: Apurimac and Urubamba valley (site of Cuzco), the heartland of the Inca empire during the Late Horizon period; Southern Coast: Paracas peninsula, Ica, Nazca valleys. The South coast was the center of the Paracas culture, famous for its multicolor textiles and pottery, of the Ica pottery style, as well as the Nazca culture with its polychrome pottery and enigmatic geoglyphs.
  • Titicaca Basin: Highland region at the border between Peru and Bolivia, around the lake Titicaca. An important site of Pucara, as well as the famous Tiwanaku (also spelled as Tiahuanaco).
  • Far South: This includes the area at the border between Peru and Chile and the region of Arequipa and Arica, with the important burial site of Chinchorro in northern Chile.

The Central Andean population were densely settled into villages, large towns, and cities on the coast as well as in the highlands. People were divided into distinct social classes since very early times. Important to all ancient Peruvian societies was ancestor worship, often manifested through ceremonies involving mummy bundles.

Central Andes Interrelated Environments

Some archaeologists use for ancient Peru culture history the term “vertical archipelago” to emphasize how important was for people living in this region the combination of highland and coastal products. This archipelago of different natural zones, moving from the coast (west) to the inland regions and the mountains (east), provided abundant and different resources.

This mutual dependence on different environmental zones that make up the Central Andean region is also visible in the local iconography, which since very early times featured animals, like felines, fish, serpents, birds coming from different areas such as the desert, the ocean, and the jungle.

Central Andes and Peruvian Subsistence

Basic to the Peruvian subsistence, but available only through exchange between different zones, were products such as maize, potatoes, lima beans, common beans, squashes, quinoa, sweet potatoes, peanuts, manioc, chili peppers, avocados, along with cotton (probably the first domesticated plant in South America), gourds, tobacco and coca. Important animals were camelids such as domesticated llamas and wild vicuña, alpaca and guanaco, and guinea pigs.

Important Sites

Chan Chan, Chavin de Huantar, Cusco, Kotosh, Huari, La Florida, Garagay, Cerro Sechín, Sechín Alto, Guitarrero Cave, Pukara, Chiripa, Cupisnique, Chinchorro, La Paloma, Ollantaytambo, Macchu Pichu, Pisaq, Recuay, Gallinazo, Pachacamac, Tiwanaku, Cerro Baul, Cerro Mejia, Sipan, Caral, Tampu Machay, Caballo Muerto Complex, Cerro Blanco, Pañamarca, El Brujo, Cerro Galindo, Huancaco, Pampa Grande, Las Haldas, Huanuco Pampa, Lauricocha, La Cumbre, Huaca Prieta, Piedra Parada, Aspero, El Paraiso, La Galgada, Cardal, Cajamarca, Cahuachi, Marcahuamachuco, Pikillaqta, Sillustani, Chiribaya, Cinto, Chotuna, Batan Grande, Tucume.


Isbell William H. and Helaine Silverman, 2006, Andean Archaeology III. North and South. Springer

Moseley, Michael E., 2001, The Inca and their Ancestor. The Archaeology of Peru. Revised Edition, Thames and Hudson

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Archaeology of Peru and the Central Andes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 27). The Archaeology of Peru and the Central Andes. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Archaeology of Peru and the Central Andes." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).