Pre-Columbian South America (to 1500)

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Mask of Ai Apaec
Decapitator Mural
Alpaca wool tapestry
Portrait vessel
Warrior Pot
Erotic Moche pots
Dog vessel
Pottery stag

Gate of the Sun/Kalasasaya temple
Ponce stela
Gold pendant
Tiwanaku Pottery
Wari earthenware

Whistling jar
Fisherman vessel
Silver panpipes
Bottle, throne and figures
Beaded wrist ornament
Feathered crown
Feathered tunic
Fish carvings, Chan Chan

Silver Alpaca
Andean bronze bottle
All-T’oqapu Tunic, Inca
Ceramic storage jar
Gold female figurine
Camelid figurine

By the first millennium, South America’s vast rainforests, mountains, plains, and coasts were the home of millions of people. Estimates vary, but 30–50 million are often given and 100 million by some estimates. The theory of pre-Columbian contact across the South Pacific Ocean between South America and Polynesia has received support from several lines of evidence, although solid confirmation remains elusive.

A diffusion by human agents has been put forward to explain the pre-Columbian presence in Oceania of several cultivated plant species native to South America, such as the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) or sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Direct archaeological evidence for such pre-Columbian contacts and transport has not emerged.

Pre-Columbian South America evolved a number of cultures and civilizations.

Moche culture (100-700)

The Moche, or Mochica, culture emerged (100-700 CE) in northern Peru with its capital near present-day Moche, Trujillo. Many suggest that the Moche were not politically organized into a monolithic empire or state, they were most likely a group of autonomous communities that shared a common culture.


These are two examples of Moche jewellery using gold, shell, stones (turquoise and malachite).

The upper image is a pair of Moche earrings, on show at the Larco Museum, Lima, Peru.

The lower pair ere dated to 200-600 and on show at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, CAL USA.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A Moche mask fabricated in bronze and decorated with shells. It depicts Ai Apaec, the chief deity of the Moche, the most feared and adored of all punitive gods.
His images often have jaguar fangs and he is regularly depicted as a spider. He was also known as ‘The Decapitator’, because, during human sacrifice, prisoners were decapitated and their heads given to Ai Apaec.
This is a Moche wall mural featuring Ai Apaec. It was discovered at Huacas del Sol and de la Luna, about five kms south of Trujillo.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A Moche alpaca wool tapestry. It is on show at the Lombards Museum, IL USA.
This terracotta portrait vessel was found in Pérou, Trujillo. Dated to 100-700 CE, it is 16 x 29 x 22 cms. It is on show at the Musée du quai Branly.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Moche warrior pot dated to 100–700. It is on show at the British Museum.
Moche lewd pottery. The upper image is said to be depciting fellatio, and that the lower is showing anal sex.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: khanacademy.org

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a dog. This spotted dog is represented in several scenes of Moche art accompanying Ai Apaec, the Moche mythological hero.

The Moche were in northern Perus, this piece is dated to c100-800 CE, it is 18cm high and is on show at the Museo Larco.
A Moche resting deer on show at the Larco Museum Collection, Lima Peru.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Tiwanaku culture (600-1000):

The Tiwanaku were based in western Bolivia based in the southern Lake Titicaca Basin. Its capital was the monumental city of Tiwanaku, that was founded as early as 110 CE, and there are large-scale agricultural production on raised fields nearby that probably supported the urban population of the capital.

Tiwanaku is missing a number of features that would stamp it out as an empire or a state. For example, there are no elite tombs to suggest a ruling dynasty or a formal social hierarchy.

Tiwanaku’s influence outside the Lake Titicaca Basin was “soft power” that blossomed into a powerful, widespread, and enduring cultural hegemony. Tiwanaku was a multi-cultural network of powerful lineages that brought people together to build large monuments.

Tiwanaku grew into the Andes’ most important pilgrimage destination and one of the continent’s largest Pre-Columbian cities, reaching a maximum population of 10,000 to 20,000 around 800 CE.


Image source: brewminate.com

The Gate of the Sun (top image) is believed not to be in its original location. The walls are covered with many different styles of tenon heads, suggesting the structure was reused for different purposes over time.

The Gate is next to the Kalasasaya temple (bottom image) in a megalithic courtyard more than 90m long. The giant andesite stones weigh more than 40 tonnes, it is conjectured that these were transported 90 kms across Lake Titicaca on reed boats. But that still left 10 kms to drag the stones across land.
Ponce stela located in the sunken courtyard of Tiwanaku’s Kalasasaya temple. It is a block-based statue, the figure is holding a ritual object. Some statues carry a severed head, allowing the conclusion that human sacrifice was paractised, Thisd is norne out by headless skeletons having been found under the Akapana.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Gold Tiwanaku Pendant
Tiwanaku pottery was often effigies of felines, herders, trophy heads and sacrificial victims.

One of the best collections of Tiwanaku human effigy vessels was found on the island of Pariti, a pilgrimage center in Lake Titicaca. These vessels bear individualistic human likenesses and reveal much information about Tiwanaku clothing and jewellery styles. These were dated to 900-1050 CE,

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: brewminate.com
The Tiwanaku shared local domination with the Wari, whose culture rose and fell around the same time, nut was centered 500 miles north in the southern highlands of Peru.
It is unknown whether the relationship between the two empires was cooperative or antagonistic. Definite interaction between the two is proved by their shared iconography in art.
This is a Wari earthenware pot with painted design, dated to 650-800 CE. The Wari shared much in common aesthetically with the Tiwanaku.

Chimú culture (900-1470)

The Moche’s rule of the north coast of Peru declined, and they were replaced by two cultures. The Sicán emerged around 750 along the Lambayeque and La Leche river valleys, the northern part of Moche’s realm. The Chimú, or Chimor, emerged around 950 along the Moche River and then expanded to the north and south. They conquered the Sicán c1375 and continued spreading towards Lima. The Chimú kingdom were terminated by Inca conquest.

Chimú culture produced high-quality textiles using dyed camelid wool, their goldsmiths and silversmiths created fine jewellery and the culture produced miniatures of everyday objects. They also used exotic feathers and shells for decoration and ceremony. Feathers were collected from the forests of the Andes and the Amazonian jungles. Spondylus princeps shells were collected from modern-day coastal Ecuador. The king of Chimú employe a Fonga Sigde servant, who pulverised the shells into a red dust and spread this before the king to create a red carpet for him, as an illustration of his extreme wealth and power.

When the Incas conquered Chimú c1470 it plundered its capital’s riches and left little behind for our purpose. Fortunately the Moche pyramids of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna have yielded artefacts.


The Chimú made whistles, trumpets and rattles in animal or human form. We can only surmise whether they were used in ceremonies or as toys.
‘Whistling jars’ have a one or two chambered vessel. The whistle is usually concealed as a bird’s head. It can be sounded either by blowing into the spout, or pouring liquid from one chamber to the other. to create a bird-like sound.
This 15 x 10 x 19 cms is dated to 1000-1476 and is on show at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Chimú vessel representing a fisherman on a caballito de totora (reed watercraft), It is dated to 1100–1400 and is on show at the Museum of the Americas, Madrid Spain.
This miniature (6 x 3 x 1 cm) set of Chimú panpipes was fabricated in silver (hammered). It is dated to 13th-15th c, and is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: metmuseum.org

This bottle is an architectural vessel in silver. It shows a mud-brick building with two audencias (seated figures on thrones) and figures. It is probably a funerary piece.
The pieces of silver were embossed and soldered together. The audencias figures have conical hats and large ear ornaments. The audeience figures appear to be an official with a similar conical hat and a figure with a sack over his shoulder, a trader or it may contain tribute.

It is from the Chimú capital Can Can, it is 24 x 11 x 17 cm and dated to 1300-1500. It is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
The Chimú often used shells that could be used to create purple, red, white and yellow beads. This is a wrist ornament that is 15,3 cm long. It is dated to 14th-15th c and is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA. Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: metmuseum.org

This 26cm high Chimú feathered crown, is dated to 14th–15th. It is cotton and skin, fromed over cane and copper, and decorated with paradise tanager bird plumage and macaw feathers. It is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
A Chimú feathered tunic, dated between 15th and early 17th c.
Its base is cotton, decorated by feathers It is 70 x 69 cms and on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Carvings of fish in the Tschudi Complex, Chan Chan.

Inca (1400-1533):

The Incas created the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, with its administrative, political and military centre at Cusco. It emerged in Peru in the early 13th c and at its largest, the empire covered today’s Peru, western Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, a large part of Chile, and the south western tip of Colombia. This was an empire comparable to the historical empires of Eurasia.

Its language was Quechua, its religion was based on Inti, the sun god, though local religions were permitted. The Inca’s king, the Sapa Inca, was believed to be the ‘son of the sun’.

One academic points out how remarkable it is that they created one of the greatest imperial states in human history, without the use of the wheel, draft animals, knowledge of iron or steel, and with no system of writing. Of course its huge gold and silver mines might have prompted coinage, but it traded by barter and its taxes were paid by labour.

The Inca empire was waning by 1533, the year the Spanish executed thier last Sapa Inca. Its last power base was taken by the Spanish in 1572. The Spanish conquest was a matter of its metal weapons and firearms, its horses and by the inadvertent spreading of smallpox.


Inca, 19cm high, silver figurine of an alpaca, dated to 1200–1400. It is on show at the American Museum of Natural History, NY USA.
Image source: britannica.com

Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

This Andean bronze bottle was most likely made by Chimú artisans, but Inca metalworkers adopted similar characteristics.
It is dated to c1300–1532:
Inca All-T’oqapu Tunic, dated to 1425-15320, fabricated in cotton and camelid fibre, It is 90 x 77 cm and is on show at the Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC USA.
Image source: khanacademy.org

Image source: metmuseum.org

Ceramic Storage jar or urpu, It is dated to 15th–early 16th c, 22 x 19 x 15 cm and is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
This gold female figurine is dated to 1400–1533. It is fabricated in a silver-gold alloy, 15 x 4 cm, and on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: metmuseum.org
Camelid figurine dated to 1400-1533 It is 5cm tall, fabricated in alloys of silver, gold and copper. It is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

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