Peru is littered with archaeological discoveries of many civilizations, from highland to coast. Two decades ago, a National Geographic team discovered Juanita the Ice Maiden, an Inca princess sacrificed on Mount Ampato more than 500 years ago. Only in the last decade, archaeologists unearthed more than 2,000 extraordinarily well-preserved mummies from one of Peru’s largest Inca burial sites, found under a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. Researchers describe Caral, a site in central Peru believed to date to 2600 B.C., as the oldest city in the Americas, and archaeologists recently celebrated the discovery of a 4,000-year-old temple on the northern coast.

First inhabited as many as 20,000 years ago, Peru was the cradle of several of the most ancient and sophisticated pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas. The Chavín, Paracas, Nazca, Huari, Moche, and Incas, among others, form a long line of complicated, occasionally overlapping, and frequently warring cultures stretching back to 2000 B.C. Before the Incas, two other civilizations, the Chavín and the Huari-Tiahuanaco, achieved pan-Andean empires. Most of what is known about pre-Columbian cultures is based on the unearthing of temples and tombs because none possessed a written language. Further complicating matters is the fact that, as one culture succeeded a previous one, it imposed its values and social structure on the vanquished but also assimilated features useful to it, making distinction among some early cultures exceedingly difficult.

Prehistory (20,000 B.C.–6,000 B.C.)

Early societies were located mainly in the coastal areas and highlands. Many fell victim to warfare, cyclical floods, extended drought, and earthquakes. Evidence of pivotal pre-Columbian cultures—including ruined temples; spectacular collections of ceramics, masks, and jewelry; and tombs found with well-preserved mummies—is everywhere in Peru, and some sites are only now being excavated and combed for clues.

The first inhabitants are thought by most historians to have crossed the Bering Strait in Asia during the last ice age, worked their way across the Americas, and settled in the region around 20,000 B.C. (although this migratory pattern has been disputed by some scholars). They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived along the central and northern coasts. The Pikimachay cave, which dates to 12,000 B.C., is the oldest known inhabited site in Peru. The earliest human remains, discovered near Huánaco in highland Peru, are from around 7000 B.C. Early Peruvians were responsible for cave paintings at Toquepala (Tacna, 7000 B.C.) and houses in Chillca (Lima, 5000 B.C.). Experts say that recent analysis of findings at the coastal site Caral, in the Supe Valley, demonstrates the existence of the earliest complex civilization in the Americas. The city was inhabited as many as 4,700 years ago, 1,000 years earlier than once believed.

Pre-Inca Cultures (6000 B.C.–A.D. 1100)

A long line of equally advanced cultures preceded the relatively short-lived Inca Empire. Over several thousand years, civilizations up and down the south Pacific coast and deep in the highlands developed ingenious irrigation systems, created sophisticated pottery and weaving techniques, and built great pyramids, temples, fortresses, and cities of adobe. Early peoples constructed mysterious cylindrical towers and the even more enigmatic Nazca Lines, giant drawings of animals and symbols somehow etched into the desert plains for eternity.

Over the course of nearly 15 centuries, pre-Inca cultures settled principally along the Peruvian coast and highlands. Around 6000 B.C., the Chinchero people along the southern desert coast mummified their dead, long before the ancient Egyptians had thought of it. By the 1st century B.C., during what is known as the Formative, or Initial, period, Andean society had designed sophisticated irrigation canals and produced the first textiles and decorative ceramics. Another important advance was the specialization of labor, aided in large part by the development of a hierarchical society.

The earliest known Peruvian civilization was the Chavín culture (1200–400 B.C.), a theocracy that worshiped a feline, jaguar-like god and settled in present-day Huántar, Ancash (central Peru). Over 8 centuries, the Chavín, who never developed into a military empire, unified groups of peoples across Peru. The most spectacular remnant of this culture, known for its advances in stone carving, pottery, weaving, and metallurgy, is the Chavín de Huántar temple, 40km (25 miles) east of Huaraz. The ceremonial center, a place of pilgrimage, contained wondrous examples of religious carving, such as the Tello Obelisk and the Raimondi Stella. The temple demonstrates evidence of sophisticated engineering and division of labor.

A subsequent society, the Paracas culture (700 B.C.–A.D. 200), took hold along the southern coast. It is renowned today for its superior textile weaving, considered perhaps the finest example of pre-Columbian textiles in the Americas. The Paracas peoples were sophisticated enough to dare to practice trepanation, a form of brain surgery that consisted of drilling holes in the skull to cure various ailments and correct cranial deformation. You can see fine examples of Paracas textiles and ceramics at the Julio C. Tello Museum in Paracas.

The Classical period (A.D. 200–1100) was one of significant social and technological development. Likely descendants of the Paracas, the Moche and Nazca cultures are among the best studied in pre-Columbian Peru. The Moche (or Mochica) civilization (A.D. 200–700), one of the first true urban societies, dominated the valleys of the north coast near Trujillo and conquered a number of smaller groups in building their widespread empire. The Moche were a highly organized hierarchical civilization that created extraordinary adobe platform complexes, such as the Temples of the Sun and Moon near Trujillo (the former was the largest man-made structure of its day in the Americas), and the burial site of Sipán, near Chiclayo, where the remains and riches of the famous Lord of Sipán, a religious and military authority, were unearthed in remarkably preserved royal tombs (remarkably brought to life, as it were, at the Museo de Tumbas Reales in Lambayeque). Moche pottery, produced from molds, contains vital clues to their way of life, down to very explicit sexual representations. Its frank depictions of phalluses, labia, and nontraditional bedroom practices might strike some visitors as pre-Columbian pornography. The best spot to view the extraordinary (in all senses of the word) ceramics of the Moche is the Rafael Larco Herrera Museum in Lima.

The Nazca culture (A.D. 300–800) established itself along the coastal desert south of Lima. Nazca engineers created outstanding underground aqueducts, which permitted agriculture in one of the most arid regions on Earth, and its artisans introduced polychrome techniques in pottery. But the civilization is internationally known for the enigmatic Nazca Lines, geometric and animal symbols etched indelibly into the desert, elements of an agricultural and astronomical calendar that are so vast that they can only really be appreciated from the window of an airplane.

The Huari (also spelled Wari) culture (A.D. 600–1100), an urban society that was the first in Peru to pursue explicitly expansionist goals through military conquest, settled the south-central sierra near Ayacucho. Along with the Tiahuanaco people, with whom they shared a central god figure, the Huari came to dominate the Andes, with an empire spreading all the way to Chile and Bolivia. Both cultures achieved superior agricultural technology in the form of canal irrigation and terraces.

Separate regional cultures, the best known of which is the Chimú culture (A.D. 700), developed and thrived over the next 4 centuries. The Chimú, adroit metallurgists and architects, built the monumental citadel of Chan Chan, a compound of royal palaces and the largest adobe city in the world, near the northern coastal city Trujillo. The Chimú were the dominant culture in Peru before the arrival and expansion of the Incas, and they initially represented a great northern and coastal rivalry to the Incas. Other cultures that thrived during the same period were the Chachapoyas, who constructed the impressive Kuélap fortress in the northern highlands; the Ica (or Chincha), south of Lima; and the altiplano (high plains) groups that built the finely crafted chullpa towers near Puno and Lake Titicaca. The Sicán (or Lambayeque) culture, which built great temple sites and buried its dead with extraordinary riches, fell to the Chimú near the end of the 14th century. The Chimú themselves were, in turn, conquered by the Incas.

The Inca Empire

Though Peru is likely to be forever synonymous with the Incas, who built the spectacular city of Machu Picchu high in the Andes and countless other great palaces and temples, the society was merely the last in a long line of pre-Columbian cultures. The Inca Empire (1200-1532) was relatively short-lived, but it remains the best documented of all Peruvian civilizations. Though the height of its power lasted for little more than a century, the Inca Empire extended throughout the Andes, all the way from present-day Colombia down to Chile -- a stretch of more than 5,635km (3,500 miles). At its apex, the Inca Empire's reach was longer than even that of the Romans.

The Incas were a naturalistic and ritualistic people who worshiped the sun god Inti and the earth goddess Pachamama, as well as the moon, thunder, lightning, and the rainbow, all regarded as deities. The Inca emperors were believed to be direct descendants of the sun god. The bold Andes Mountains were at least as important in their system of beliefs: The dwelling places of respected spirits, the 7,000m (22,960-ft.) peaks were the sites of human sacrifices. The Incas founded Cusco, the sacred city and capital of the Inca Empire (which they called Tahuantinsuyo, or Land of Four Quarters). The ruling sovereign was properly called the Inca, but today the term also refers to the people and the empire.

The Incas' Andean dominance was achieved through formidable organization and a highly developed economic system. The Incas rapidly expanded their empire first through political alliances and absorption, and then by swift military conquest. Though the Incas imposed their social structure and way of life, they also assimilated useful skills and practices, even granting administrative positions to defeated nobles of the Chimú and other cultures. The Incas thus succeeded in achieving political and religious unification across most of their domain.

The Incas recorded an astounding level of achievement. They never developed a system of writing, but they kept extraordinary records with an accounting system of knots on strings, called quipus. They laid a vast network of roadways, nearly 32,200km (20,000 miles) total across the difficult territory of the Andes, connecting cities, farming communities, and religious sites. A network of runners, called chasquis, operated on the roads, relaying messages and even transporting foodstuffs from the coast to the Andes. Tambos, or way stations, dotted the highways, serving as inspection points and shelters for relay runners. The Inca Trail was a sacred highway, connecting the settlements in the Urubamba Valley to the ceremonial center, Machu Picchu.

The Incas' agricultural techniques were exceedingly skilled and efficient, with advanced irrigation systems and soil conservation. The Incas were also extraordinary architects and unparalleled stonemasons. Inca ruins reveal splendid landscaping and graceful construction of perfectly cut stones and terraces on inaccessible sites with extraordinary views of valleys and mountains.

A rigid hierarchy and division of labor ruled Inca society. At the top, just below the Inca sovereign (who was also the chief military and religious figure and considered a descendant of the sun), was the ruling elite: nobles and priests. Tens of thousands of manual laborers provided the massive manpower necessary to construct temples and palaces throughout the empire. The Inca kept chosen maidens, or Virgins of the Sun (acllas), who serviced him and Inca nobles.

Extraordinarily tight community organization was replicated across the empire. At the heart of the structure was the Inca's clan, the panaca, composed of relatives and descendants. Spanish conquistadors chronicled a dynasty that extended to 12 rulers, from Manco Cápac, the empire's founder in 1200 who was said to have risen out of Lake Titicaca, to Atahualpa, whose murder in Cajamarca by Spanish conquerors spelled the end of the great power.

The Inca Pachacútec ruled from 1438 to 1463, and he is considered the great builder of Inca civilization. Under his rule, Cusco was rebuilt, and some of the most brilliant examples of Inca architecture were erected, including Cusco's Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), the Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuamán fortresses, and, of course, the famed religious city of Machu Picchu. Pachacútec also initiated the empire's expansion. It was Pachacútec's successor, Tupac Yupanqui (1463-93), however, who achieved dominance from Ecuador to Chile. A great conqueror, he defeated his Chimú rivals in northern Peru.

After the death of the Inca Huayna Cápac in 1525, civil war ensued, brought on by the empire splitting between his two sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar. The Spaniards, arriving in northern Peru in 1532, found a severely weakened empire -- a pivotal reason the Incas so swiftly succumbed to a small band of invading Spaniards. Another key was the Spaniards' superior military technology. Against cannons and cavalry, the Incas' slings, battle-axes, and cotton-padded armor stood little chance. But their defeat remains puzzling to most visitors to Peru, not to mention many scholars.

Chakana, the Inca Cross

The ever-present Inca cross, the Chakana (consisting of four symmetrical sides of three steps each and a hole in the middle) is the very symbol of Inca civilization and its complex cosmology. Represented in it are three levels of existence or worlds: Hana Pacha, the higher world of the apus, or gods; Kay Pacha, the middle world of man’s everyday existence; and Ucu Pacha, the lower world inhabited by spirits of the dead and ancestors. The hole in the center of the cross is both the axis through which a shaman might travel to other worlds and states of consciousness, and representative of Cusco, the center of the Incan empire. Some believe the Chakana to be a compass or calendar. The familiar motif of three steps is seen repeatedly in Inca constructions, from Machu Picchu to the Temple of the Sun in Cusco.

Spanish Conquest & Colonialism

Columbus and his cohorts landed in the Americas in 1492, and by the 1520s, the Spanish conquistadors had reached South America. Francisco Pizarro led an expedition along Peru's coast in 1528. Impressed with the riches of the Inca Empire, he returned to Spain and succeeded in raising money and recruiting men for a return expedition. In 1532, Pizarro made his return to Peru over land from Ecuador. After founding the first Spanish city in Peru, San Miguel de Piura, near the Ecuadorian border, he advanced upon the northern highland city of Cajamarca, an Inca stronghold. There, a small number of Spanish troops -- about 180 men and 30 horses -- cunningly captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa. The emperor promised to pay a king's ransom of gold and silver for his release, offering to fill his cell several times over, but the Spaniards, having received warning of an advancing Inca army, executed the emperor in 1533. It was a catastrophic blow to an already weakened empire.

Pizarro and his men massacred the Inca army, estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 warriors. The Spaniards installed a puppet Inca, Tupac Huallpa, the brother of Huáscar, who had died while Atahualpa was being held. They then marched on Cusco, capturing the capital city on November 15, 1533, and emptying the Sun Temple of its golden treasures. After the death of Tupac Huallpa en route, a new puppet was appointed, Manco Inca.

Pizarro founded the coastal city of Lima 2 years later, which became the capital of the new colony, the Viceroyalty of Peru. The Spanish crown appointed Spanish-born viceroys the rulers of Peru, but Spaniards battled among themselves for control of Peru's riches, and the remaining Incas continued to battle the conquistadors. A great siege was laid to Cusco in 1536, with Manco Inca and his brothers directing the rebellion from Sacsayhuamán. Pizarro was assassinated in 1541, and the indigenous insurrection ended with the beheading of Manco Inca, who had escaped to Vilcabamba, deep in the jungle, in 1544. Inca Tupac Amaru led a rebellion in 1572 but also failed and was killed.

Over the next 2 centuries, Lima gained in power and prestige at the expense of the old Inca capital and became the foremost colonial city of the Andean nations. The Peruvian viceroyalty stretched all the way from Panama to Tierra del Fuego. Cusco focused on cultural pursuits and became the epicenter of the Cusco School of painting (Escuela Cusqueña), which incorporated indigenous elements into Spanish styles, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Independent Peru

By the 19th century, grumbling over high taxes and burdensome Spanish controls grew in Peru, as it did in most colonies in the Americas. After liberating Chile and Argentina, José de San Martín set his sights north on Lima in 1821 and declared it an independent nation the same year. Simón Bolívar, the other hero of independence on the continent, came from the other direction. His successful campaigns in Venezuela and Colombia led him south to Ecuador and finally Peru. Peru won its independence from Spain after crucial battles in late 1824. Though Peru mounted its first civilian government, defeat by Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-83) left Peru in a dire economic position.

Several military regimes ensued, and Peru finally returned to civilian rule in 1895. Land-owning elites dominated this new "Aristocratic Republic." In 1911, the Yale historian Hiram Bingham happened upon the ruins of the imperial city Machu Picchu -- a discovery that would begin to unravel the greatness of the Incas and forever associate Peru with the last of its pre-Columbian civilizations.

Peru launched war with Ecuador over a border dispute -- just one of several long-running border conflicts -- in 1941. Though the 1942 Treaty of Río de Janeiro granted the area north of the River Marañon to Peru, Ecuador would continue to claim the territory until the end of the 20th century.

Present-Day Peru (1945–Present Day)

Peru’s modern political history has been largely a turbulent mix of military dictatorships, coups d’état, and disastrous civilian governments, engendering a near-continual cycle of instability. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, Peru became notorious for government corruption at the highest levels—leading to the exile of two recent presidents—and widespread domestic terrorism fears.

Peru shook off 2 decades of dictatorship in 1945 after a free election (the first in many decades) of José Luis Bustamante y Rivero. Bustamante served for just 3 years. General Manuel A. Odría led a coup and installed a military regime in 1948. In 1963, Peru returned to civilian rule, with Fernando Belaúnde Terry as president. The armed forces overthrew Belaúnde in 1968, but the new military regime (contrary to other right-leaning dictatorships in Latin America) expanded the role of the state, nationalized a number of industries, and instituted agrarian reform. The land-reform initiatives failed miserably. Reelected in 1980, Belaúnde and his successor, Alan García (1985–90), faced, and were largely unsuccessful in dealing with, hyperinflation, massive debt, nationwide strikes, and two homegrown guerrilla movements—the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA)—that destabilized Peru with violent terror campaigns throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Peruvians fled the capital and the countryside, fearful of attack; few travelers were brave enough to plan vacations in the troubled nation. Meanwhile, Peru’s role on the production end of the international cocaine trade grew exponentially.

García refused to pay Peru’s external debt (which prompted both the IMF and World Bank to cut off support) and then fled into exile after being charged with embezzling millions. With the economy in ruins and the government in chaos, Alberto Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, defeated the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and became president in 1990. In 1992, Fujimori’s government arrested key members of both the MRTA and the Shining Path (catapulting the president to unprecedented popularity). His administration turned authoritarian, however, shutting down Congress in 1992, suspending the constitution, and decreeing an emergency government that he effectively ruled as dictator. There was a massive abuse of power on the part of the police and military, who engaged in systematic repression that led to kidnappings and killings of suspected terrorists. Many were overt political targetings of innocents.

Austerity measures got Peru on the right track economically, with reforms leading to widespread privatizations, annual growth of 7%, and a drop in inflation from more than 10,000% annually to about 20%. Many Peruvians reluctantly accepted Fujimori’s overturn of democracy. Having pushed to get the constitution amended so that he could run for successive terms, Fujimori was reelected in 1995. Fujimori resigned the presidency in late 2000 and escaped into exile in Japan after a corruption scandal involving his shadowy intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. Videotape of Montesinos bribing a congressman and subsequent investigations (including a daily barrage of secret videotapes broadcast on national television) revealed a government so thoroughly corrupt that it was itself involved in the narcotics trade that it was ostensibly stamping out. Fujimori had funneled at least $12 million to private offshore accounts. Montesinos escaped to Venezuela, where he was harbored by the government until found and returned to Peru for imprisonment. Fujimori remains in a jail in Lima for his role in ordering death squads, along with three other concurrent sentences, including for abuse of power, bribery, and illegal wiretapping of phones. The 2009 trial marked the first time in Peruvian history that a former president was tried for crimes committed during his administration.

Alejandro Toledo, a political newcomer from a poor Indian family, won the 2001 election and became Peru’s first president of the 21st century. The U.S. State Department Human Rights Report named Peru among the success stories of the year, praising the country for meeting international standards for free elections and addressing past abuses and corruption under the Fujimori administration. Toledo had labeled himself an “Indian rebel with a cause,” alluding to his intent to support the nation’s native Andean populations, or cholos. A shoeshine boy and son of peasants who went to Harvard and Stanford, became a World Bank economist, and ultimately wrestled the top office from a corrupt leader was the very embodiment of the dream of social mobility—in a country where there is little upward movement by non-whites. Toledo offered an encouraging symbol of hope to both Peruvians and the international community. Yet, like previous governments, Toledo’s administration was plagued by instability, abuse of power, and poor management.

In recent years, Peruvian politics have been torn apart by a scandal involving Brazilian builder Odebrecht that has led to investigations and/or jail time for Toledo and his successors, Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala. The most recently elected president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned in March 2018 as his impeachment was looming. In his inauguration speech, current president Martín Vizcarra stated, “The time has come to say we’ve had enough.”

Peru had been engaged in a longstanding dispute with Yale University in the United States over the possession of thousands of valuable pre-Columbian artifacts removed from Peru during the archaeological expeditions of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor credited with rediscovering Machu Picchu in 1911 and publicizing it to the world. Peru claimed it had merely loaned the artifacts to Yale and even sought the intervention of U.S. President Barack Obama in the matter. In 2010, Yale finally stopped asserting its claim and agreed to return the bulk of the artifacts, long held in the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, sending them to Cusco’s Museo Casa Concha, which was built specifically for the pieces.

Peru’s 32 million people are predominantly mestizo (of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage) and indigenous Andean, but the population is a true melting pot of ethnic groups. Significant minority groups of Afro-Peruvians (descendants of African slaves, living mainly in the coastal area south of Lima), immigrant Japanese and Chinese populations among the largest in South America, and smaller groups of European immigrants, including Italians and Germans, help make up Peru’s population. In the early days of the colony, Peruvian-born offspring of Spaniards were called criollo, though that term today refers mainly to coastal residents and Peruvian cuisine.

After Bolivia and Guatemala, Peru has the largest population by percentage of Amerindians in Latin America. Perhaps half the country lives in the sierra, or highlands, and most of these people, commonly called campesinos (peasants), live in small villages or rural areas. Descendants of Peru’s many Andean indigenous groups in remote rural areas continue to speak the native languages Quechua (made an official language in 1975) and Aymara or other Amerindian tongues, and for the most part, they adhere to traditional regional dress. However, massive peasant migration to cities from rural highland villages has contributed to a dramatic weakening of indigenous traditions and culture across Peru. (The early-2000s government of Alejandro Toledo, himself a proud cholo, or person of direct Andean Indian roots, committed itself to a valorization and preservation of native language and traditions, though.)

Peruvians are a predominantly Roman Catholic people (more than 90% claim to be Catholic), although Protestant evangelical churches have been winning converts, a fact that is worrisome to the Catholic Church. Animistic religious practices (worship of deities representing nature), inherited from the Incas and others, have been incorporated into the daily lives of many Peruvians and can be seen in festivals and small individual rituals such as offerings of food and beverages to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.


Until recently a rather well-guarded secret, Peruvian cuisine is among the most accomplished and diverse cuisines found anywhere. As a dining city, the cosmopolitan capital, Lima, is on par with some of the finest eating cities in the world. But it’s far from the only place one can expect to eat very well. Arequipa has its own very distinguished cuisine with liberal and creative use of ajíes, or hot peppers. Cusco’s dining scene used to be comparatively bland, but no more; today it, too, thrives with innovative restaurants. And northern coastal cooking, particularly that of Chiclayo and Lambayeque, is quickly earning its own adherents.

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