Seeing Double: How History Repeats Itself in the Peruvian Andes

Evan Clark is a student at the University of Louisville. He is an ISA Featured Blogger and studied abroad with ISA in Cusco, Peru.

When visitors come to Cusco, Peru, the echoes of the city’s Incan past loom large.  During my first two weeks in Cusco, I have relished the opportunity to explore exquisitely built Incan sites such as Sacsayhuaman, Pisac, Tambomachay, Ollantaytambo, Tipón, and Puka Pukara.  Yet despite the grandeur of the Inca’s engineering marvels, they would not have been able to achieve their feats without the technological advancements of their predecessors.  As I learned in my ongoing class on the History of the Inca Civilization, the Wari Empire that preceded the Inca propagated the system of community organization called the ayllu, which the Inca later adopted.  This system proved crucial for ensuring a stable food supply for not only the Wari, but also their cultural descendants, the Inca.  Not only did the Inca adopt the community structure of the Wari, but they also adopted the religious beliefs of the Tiwanaku people who had lived to the south near Lake Titicaca in what is now Bolivia.

The Inca’s success at farming these fertile fields of the Sacred Valley near Cusco largely depended on the agricultural productivity of the ayllu communities that had risen to prominence under the Wari.

The Inca’s cultural and economic heritage did not derive from highland civilizations only, however.  I had come to Peru knowing that the Inca regularly used llamas and alpacas as pack animals to carry goods through the Andes Mountains.  These animals are particularly useful for carrying goods through the rugged Andes Mountains territory, through which wheels would have difficulty moving.  During my history class, however, I was surprised to learn that the Moche civilization, a culture that existed along the Peruvian coastal desert from about A.D. 100 to A.D. 700, domesticated llamas and alpacas.  Another coastal Peruvian civilization, the Paracas culture, developed fine weaving skills and an effective mummification technique that the Inca would adapt to their own highland climate.

South American camelids, such as these alpacas at the small settlement of Awana Kancha, were domesticated many centuries before the Inca civilization developed.

Likewise, while the Inca are renowned for their complex irrigation systems and their extensive network of roads, these engineering masterpieces could trace their development back to cultures like the Chimú, which existed in Peru before the Inca rose to prominence, particularly the Chimú people that the Incas conquered.  The terraced farms that allowed the Inca civilization to produce a wide variety of crops at differing altitudes along mountain slopes could trace their origins to the terraces of the Nazca culture and the agricultural system of the Tiwanaku people.

I visited the vast Inca terraces at Pisac, which serve as an example of how the Inca looked to the developments of their ancestors and improved upon them.

Learning about the roots of Inca beliefs, practices, and infrastructure in civilizations that preceded the Inca has given me a fresh perspective on Peruvian history.  Though the Inca dominated the Andes before the arrival of the Spanish, their rise cannot be properly understood in a vacuum.  The cultural legacy of the Inca’s ancestors reappeared again and again throughout the evolution of civilizations in Peru, demonstrating that the Inca were not a new kind of civilization in Peru.  Rather, the culture and infrastructure of the Inca represented a fusion of the beliefs and practices of the diverse civilizations that had existed throughout Peru prior to the Inca conquests.  This realization helps me understand the importance of noting the continuity that ties cultures of the past to those of the present.

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One thought

  1. Thanks, Evan, for giving me a better sense of pre-Inca Peruvian history! The north of Chile (formerly Peru) has a similar history of advanced cultures. We visited an archeology museum with amazing ceramic and textile artifacts in Arica.

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