Exploring Peru through Wonders
The Capital Museum is hosting an exhibition titled, “Wonders: The Ancient Andean Civilization in Peru,” offering attendees the opportunity to explore the life of the ancient ancestors of Peru.
On the western side of the continent of South America, between the north-south Andes Mountains and the Pacific, a narrow and long stretch of land in the Republic of Peru contains various natural features such as a river valley, desert and plateau. There are no vast rivers or fertile lands, but this area is home to the birthplace of one of the most important prehistoric civilisations— the Andeans.
Apart from the Inca Empire that is familiar to many, this piece of land was also home to many other historical Andean cultures such as Chavín, Nazca, Moche, Wari, Sican and Chimú. From 3,000 B.C. to the 16th century, people here created grand architecture, delicate stone carvings, magnificent textiles, colourful pottery, and shining gold and silver wares.
The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic ties between China and the Republic of Peru, as well as the 200th anniversary of Peru's independence. The Capital Museum is hosting an exhibition titled, “Wonders: The Ancient Andean Civilisation in Peru.” The exhibition offers attendees the opportunity to explore the life of the ancient ancestors of Peru, and discover and understand their rich and colourful material civilisation and spiritual world. The exhibition is jointly hosted by the Ministry of Culture of Peru (Ministeriode Cultura) and six Chinese museums. Eleven museums from Peru cosponsored the exhibition, which is the last leg of the Andean Civilisation Exhibition in China tour. Several archaeologists, anthropologists and international experts in the fields of research of art history worked out the plans and provided academic support. They have made great advances in the study of Andean civilisations and culture.
The exhibition is scheduled to last until August 22.
Early Development of the Civilisation
About 1,500 BC to 200 BC Between 1500 BC and 200 BC, many cultures in the Andean region began to prosper. Among them, the epitome was the Chavín culture, with Chavín de Huantar as its centre in the southern end of the northern highlands of Peru.
During the thriving centuries of Chavín culture (900–200 BC), its influence was vast, stretching from the highlands in the north to the southern parts of Peru. Archaeological studies in the area discovered that relatively unified artistic styles existed even then, indicating that Chavín culture was widespread at the time. This represents the first cultural peak of the Andean Civilisation. Many elements of the Andean Civilisation such as jaguar worship and large-scale sacrificial centres were established or strengthened during the time, and continued to appear even in later cultures.
The items on display in the first section of the exhibition show many such characteristics. A red stone plate with the carved pattern of a two-headed spider collected by the Laruk Museum was made from 1500–500 BC. The features of eight legs and the chin of the spider were distinctive. Among the many cultures and arts in the Andean region, depictions of spiders were quite common. In some artwork, spiders appeared together with the heads of prisoners of war, indicating that spiders were regarded as symbols of power.
A conch horn, estimated to be from between 900–550 BC collected by Chavín National Museum in Peru has delicate decorative patterns. A close look at the horn finds the pattern of a skull-shaped relief and the pattern of a spear. Such an object of the Chavín culture was called pututu in Quechua, the lineal descendant of the Inca language. The horn was made of a large conch from the East Pacific. The horn was unearthed in 2001 near a location called “Conch Pillar Corridor” at the circular square of the Chavín de Huantar ruins. This horn has the most extremely complicated decorative relief out of the 20 horns that were unearthed there.
One piece of carved granite bears features of late Chavín culture. It was unearthed from the Chavín de Huantar ruins, and has a concaved square. There were many similar stone plates, one of which is on display at the exhibit. The human figure carved on the granite plate has animalistic features such as protruding teeth, sharp claws and a snake-like appendage. The tree leaf and bean pod carved on the stone plate are believed to be a kind of snakeshaped bean from a plant that has some hallucinogenic effects if consumed. The image of such a plant was popular during the times of the Chavín culture.
Co-existence of Multiple Cultures
About 200 BC to AD 600
After 200 BC, Chavín culture began to gradually decline. Many places in Peru which were formerly influenced by Chavín culture had developed into various distinctive cultures. For example, in northern and central Peru, different cultures including Jainaso and Lima cultures appeared. Between the first century and the 5th century, other cultures such as Cajamarca and Reguay in the northern highlands co-existed with the emerging Moche culture from the northern coastal areas.
In the southern coastal areas, the Paracas culture—which was influenced by Chavín culture—gradually developed
into Nazca culture. In the early 6th century, Moche culture emerged as the strongest culture in the coastal areas, and ultimately became one of the most representative cultures of all the various Andean civilisations.
This section of the exhibit mainly displays exquisite artistic works from the Nazca and Moche cultures.
The scarlet macaw fan from the Nazca culture is made of bright feathers. The shafts of the feathers were tied together to become the handle of the fan. The feathers may have come from scarlet macaw. This variety of macaw was not local to areas inhabited by Nazca culture, but were widely dispersed in the Amazon River basin to the east of the Andes Mountains.
The exhibition also displays pottery made during the time of the Nazca. The pottery pieces were painted with colours before being baked. As many as 13 colours could be used on one single piece of pottery. The themes of the patterns vary. A large amount of the patterns come from the mythological beliefs, mythical birds, the god of the killer whale and the god of water of the Nazca ancestors. Among the archaeological discoveries, the patterns of divine images and “Nazca ground paintings” are quite similar. Although the Nazca ancestors did not leave any written records, researchers can understand their spiritual ideas through the patterns on Nazca pottery pieces.
The pottery vase on display has the likeness of a soldier holding wooden sticks and shields. This is an artefact from the Moche culture. The half-kneeling soldier wears delicate head protection and large earrings, holds a square shield and wooden stick. The shield and the headwear all have windmill-shaped black and white badges. These badges were delicately carved and painted with tar. The wooden stick was made separately and placed into the hands after the pottery was baked. From his attire, he might be a noble soldier. Such images of soldiers appeared on artefacts of other forms as well.
In the Moche culture, men and women wore earrings. The exhibition also displays another object with the pattern of a warrior wearing golden earrings; the patterns of the pair of golden earrings are the same—like a mirror image. The pattern shows a soldier holding a flag in one hand and a round shield and a pair of shuttle boomerangs in the other. The earrings are decorated with a round edge, and both have cinnabar paintings.
Heroes Emerged About 600 AD to 1100
In the second half of the 6th century, people moved from the central coastal areas of the Andes to the highlands in the central part of the country due to abnormal coastal weather and scarcity of food. Therefore, several extremely influential cultures appeared in the highlands during these times.
The Tiwanaku culture, originating from the surrounding areas of Lake Titicaca, maintained a long period of prosperity thanks to its strong military power and religious features.
The Wari culture also emerged in the central highlands, and shared some origins with the previous Nazca culture of the southern coastal area. Wari culture also had close relations with the neighbouring Tiwanaku culture. During the 7th century, Wari culture developed into a complicated socio-political system that remained strong for nearly three centuries.
Sican culture, which formed slightly later than the previous two cultures, inherited and absorbed the essence of Moche culture and emerged rapidly relying on its rich products in the northern coastal areas of Peru. In particular, metallurgy and agricultural irrigation were prominent during Sican times, which was the strongest of the Andean civilisations in those days.
On the portrait on a colourful pottery container representing the Tiwanaku culture, one may recognize a noble man with a delicate hat and trimmed beard who is chewing beans. Archaeologists called the round pattern in the middle of the hat a “stepped cross.” The patterns arranged above and beneath the cross can be regarded as an abstract skull, which might represent funeral concepts, as cultural relics with similar patterns were also unearthed from tombs.
The alpaca-shaped colourful pottery container of the Wari culture dates back to between 800 AD and 1000, and comes
from the Pacheco ruins in the Nazca River basin. Similar to other broken objects unearthed from the same ruins, such a large object is thought to have been made for the purposes of a certain ceremony, which has important significance and large scale. The ceremony may have ended with the destruction and burial of numerous pottery objects. The broken pottery might contain fragments of larger pieces. In the Wari culture, the shape of an alpaca was common, as the animal was believed to have been one of the most appropriate sacrificial offerings to the gods.
The hammered artistic golden sautoir reflects the exquisite art of gold production of the Sican culture. This sautoir was made from a single piece of gold. Under a row of abstract images of birds, a Sican nobleman stands holding a truncheon in each of his hands. On both sides, there are images of a row of kneeling people back-to-back, holding other objects in their hands.
The Lost Empire
About 1100 to 1572
Around the year AD 1000, along with the gradual collapse of the regimes of Wari culture in the highlands of the central areas and Tiwanaku culture in the south, clashes among newly emerging political forces were rampant. Around the year 1100, in the northern coastal area, the decline of the Sican culture and the collapse of its political force gave Chimú the opportunity to expand. It set its capital in Chan Chan, a city along the Moche River, and expanded its territory along the coastline. Eventually, by the end of 14th century, it became a major power in the coastal areas in the central and northern regions. Yet, in the later times of the Chimú expansion, the Inca in the southern highlands of Peru gradually grew in strength. By the end of 15th century, the Incan Empire conquered the Kingdom of Chimú to become the largest political system established by native inhabitants on the American Continent. Lasting until the first half of the 16th century, the Incan Empire began to collapse with the arrival of Spanish colonists.
The face of a decorative wooden male sculpture collected by the Chan
Chan Ruins Museum of Peru was painted with different colours; its eyes and body were inlaid with shells. Such a wooden sculpture would have usually been placed in a shrine on the wall of a palace. Inside the capital city of Chan Chan of Chimú, a dozen palaces were built by kings during various times. The palace walls were built with millions of sun-dried adobe bricks, decorated with clay reliefs and shrines where such wooden sculptures would have been kept. The ruins of the ancient town of Chan Chan cover about 250,000 square metres. Outside the palace wall were the residences for noble families, low-grade officials and artisans.
The alpaca pattern plate collected by the Peru National Archeology, Anthropology and History Museum allows people to see and understand a part of the Inca culture. This shallow Inca pottery plate estimated to be from between the years 1450 to 1535 is decorated with patterns of two concentric circled alpaca and inlaid with diamond-shaped patterns. There is a pair of small handles on the edge of the plate. Such plates with small handles were usually used during various ceremonial Inca banquets.
Bronze alpaca head tumi knives were also produced during the thriving Inca Empire. Inca produced numerous bronze products across the country at the time. The handle of the tumi knife was welded onto a casted oval knife after forging. The end of the handle was formed into the shape of an alpaca head. Such knives were used during offerings at sacrificial ceremonies.
A sleeveless robe on display is an Incastyle overcoat of alpaca fur as the warp and cotton thread as weft. Such a high weaving technique was only done by imperial weavers, called cumbicamayos. The octagon pattern on the robe may have come from the Chukipampa area in the southern Andes, and its design and standard were somewhat different from Incan robes.
The exhibition displays a wellpreserved Andean recording auxiliary tool that was unearthed from the Leimebamba region in northeast Peru. The item is a rope made of woollen fibre with a series of threads in different colours. Each thread has knots on it. The position and type of knot represent digits in a decimal system. History, statistics and religious information were coded into these digits to create records.
A school at Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire, provided training on the special recording of various kinds of information. The information would later be interpreted by future senior officials. Unfortunately, the method of explaining the knots has been lost to time despite the great efforts to restore them.
The final section of the exhibition displays several cultural relics from the Spanish colonial period.
The arrival of Spanish explorers and their conquering of the Incan Empire brought a profound change to the native world of the Andes. The change also enabled certain Andean customs and systems to be passed down.
During the period of Spanish rule, imperial Inca family members were allowed to keep some privileges, which included using the cups to describe their past glories.
The clash of the old and new empires on the continent had a massive impact on the perspectives of the Andean cultures and their civilisation. Spanish rule would not lead to the complete disappearance of the traditions and achievements of Andean cultures; Incan features always appeared on goods in Spanish-ruled areas.
To rebuild the history of the Andean civilisations that had no written records, people can only rely on archaeological discoveries. Different schools of Peruvian and international archaeological circles have different views on the periods of history in question. Earlier conclusions are tossed out when new discoveries are made. Therefore, the division of the history and culture of Peru and the division of various civilisations and opinions are based on recent understandings in relevant academic circles. On the basis of sorting detailed materials, research achievements and in-depth interpretation provided by different museums, this exhibition allows visitors to learn more about the still mysterious and unique history and charm of the Andean civilisations of Peru.