Several complex societies formed in the Andean region of South America, the Caral—or Norte Chico—and the Chavín.


  • Several complex societies formed in the Andean region of South America, the Caral—or Norte Chico—and the Chavín.
  • Some scholars dispute whether the Caral culture represented a true civilization.
  • The Chavín civilization was named for and centered around a large temple at Chavín de Huántar and was probably organized around a religious hierarchy.

Caral—or Norte Chico—civilization

The Caral civilization—also known as the Norte Chico civilization—was a complex society, meaning its people had specialized, but interconnected, roles. It was located in what is now north-central coastal Peru, and existed between roughly 3500-1700 BCE. Some have argued that it is the oldest known civilization in the Americas, but others have claimed that there is too little evidence of the political, economic, and religious structures to definitively claim the Caral society was truly a civilization. For example, those who study Caral sites assume that sophisticated government was required to manage them, but questions remain over how it was organized to carry out these building projects.
A photograph of the remains of the Caral site in Peru on a cloudy day with mountain ranges in the background. The remains look to be stepped pyramids or mounds.
The remains of the Caral site in Peru. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The most impressive achievement of the Caral society was its monumental architecture, including large earthwork platform mounds and sunken circular plazas. The urban complex of Caral takes up more than 150 acres, and at its peak, approximately 3,000 people lived in Caral. Its urban plan, which contained a central plaza and temples surrounded by homes, was used by other Andean civilizations for the next 4,000 years.
Most cities were located on one of three rivers in the region. This provided irrigation that allowed for cotton cultivation on a large scale. Evidence for large-scale cultivation of food crops is less clear. Archaeological evidence suggests use of textile technology for making clothing and fishnets, which fits with the evidence of cotton cultivation.
There is no evidence for the creation or use of ceramic pottery, which is often related to food storage and preparation. Some scholars have suggested that Caral civilization obtained much of its food resources from the sea rather than from the development of agricultural cereal and crop surpluses, which have been considered essential to the rise of other ancient civilizations. This is one reason why not all scholars are convinced that Caral represents a “true civilization”.
Artifacts found include flutes made of bird bones and cornetts—a type of instrument similar to a flute, made of deer and llama bones. These animals also provided meat to the Caral diet and were almost certainly hunted in the wild, rather than domesticated.
One of the most interesting artifacts found at Caral is a knotted cotton textile piece called a quipu —sometimes spelled khipu. Quipu were used by many Andean societies, including the Inca, who were still using the system in the 1500s CE when the Spanish arrived in South America. Quipu consisted of a series of strings with knots that allowed its users to perform calculations and to record transactions and other information. Along with questions about Caral food production, debates over whether quipu represented a formal writing system also prevent agreement over the status of the Caral as a civilization.

Chavín Civilization

The Chavín civilization developed in the northern Andean highlands of Peru between 900 and 250 BCE, roughly 1,000 years after the decline of the Caral civilization. It was located in the Mosna River Valley, where the Mosna and Huachecsa rivers merge.
A map of Peru and the western part of Brazil. The Chavín civilization is highlighted in red along the coast and areas with "Chavín influence" are highlighted in pink and spread both north and south on the coast.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Chavín civilization is named for the temple at Chavín de Huántar, which is the most prominent site linked with the broader culture. Like all other civilizations, Chavín society developed and changed over time. Between about 900 and 500 BCE, only several hundred people lived near the temple site. The temple itself was probably a regional ceremonial center to which people would travel for significant events. Around 500 BCE, the number of people living around the temple increased, and renovations and remodeling of the temple to allow for larger crowds were completed. The domestication of llamas appeared around this time, as did increased evidence of cross-cultural trade in the form of non-Chavín materials. This indicates that there must have been some increase in specialized economic activity to produce goods that could be traded.
From about 400 BCE to 200 BCE, the Chavin population grew substantially, and more urban forms of settlement appeared. Specialized pottery showed up during this time as well, indicating increased local production and probably an increased level of agricultural surplus, as pottery was often a means of storing surplus food.
The unique geography of the Chavín site—near two rivers and also near high mountain valleys—allowed its residents to grow both maize, which thrived in the lowlands of the river valley, and potatoes, which grew best in the higher altitudes of the Andes Mountains. The settlement pattern of larger villages in the lowland regions surrounded by smaller satellite villages in the highlands might have been a way to take advantage of these diverse agricultural opportunities through specialized production.
Along with maize and potatoes, the Chavin people also grew the grain quinoa and built irrigation systems to water these crops. They used domesticated llamas as pack animals to transport goods and as a source of food. A common method of preserving llama meat was drying it into what later Andean people called ch’arki—the origin of the word jerky!
Ruins of Chavín de Huantar set into the base of a mountainside. The site is made of brown bricks that are crumbling.
Site of Chavín de Huantar. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The design of the Chavín de Huántar temple shows advanced building techniques that were adapted to the highland environment of Peru. To avoid flooding and the destruction of the temple during the rainy season, the Chavín people created a drainage system with canals under the temple structure.
Chavín art was the first widespread, recognizable artistic style in the Andes and the temple itself was the most dramatic expression of Chavín style. The Old Temple featured the Lanzón, a 4.5 meter long piece of granite, carved in the form of the most important Chavín deity. The name Lanzón refers to the sculpture itself, coming from the Spanish word for lance, which the Spanish thought the sculpture resembled.
Because the Chavín left no written records and the civilization was no longer in existence when the Spanish arrived, the Chavín name of the deity is unknown. The Lanzón was housed in the central chamber of a labyrinth of underground passages below the temple. Spiritually, the Lanzón likely marked a pivot point linking the heavens, earth, and underworld.
Black-and-white photograph of the head of the stela statue Lanzón, a granite carving of the Chavín deity.
The most important stela statue of the central deity of the Chavín, called the Lanzón. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Also near the temple was the Tello Obelisk, a giant sculpted shaft of granite. The obelisk features images of plants and animals—including caymans, birds, crops, and human figures—and may portray a Chavín creation myth. Though its purpose has not been fully deciphered by archaeologists, the obelisk seems to have been aligned on an axis with the Lanzón and thus may have also served as a sort of spiritual or astrological marker. This indicates that the Chavin possessed some knowledge of astronomy.
Photograph of the Tello obelisk, a giant sculpted shaft of granite. The obelisk features images of plants and animals—including caymans, birds, crops, and human figures—and may portray a Chavín creation myth.
Tello Obelisk. Image by Robert Nunn, licensed under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license
The Chavín people created refined goldwork and used early techniques of melting metal and soldering—connecting two pieces of metal by using another metal as a sort of glue. Chavín art decorated the walls of the temple and includes carvings, sculptures, and pottery. The feline figure—most often the jaguar—had important religious meaning and shows up in many carvings and sculptures. Eagles are also commonly seen throughout Chavín art. The art was intentionally difficult to interpret, as it was meant to be read by the high priests alone.
There is little evidence of warfare in Chavín relics and no signs of defensive structures at urban sites. Instead, local citizens were likely controlled by a combination of religious pressure and environmental conditions. The Andes Mountains and Pacific Ocean acted as natural barriers to movement, confining settlement and travel largely to the coastal strip, see map above.
The political structures of Chavín society are not clear, but the construction of the temple and the limited access to knowledge of symbols both imply that a hierarchy based on religious or spiritual beliefs existed.
The construction and later renovation of the temple would have required mobilizing a large amount of labor, so there must have been some system for doing this. The most common theory is that there existed a small, elite group of shamans—people believed to have the ability to communicate with the spiritual world—and that they maintained positions of power through this exclusive ability.

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  • How did early Andean societies take advantage of the region’s geography for agricultural production?
  • How did Chavín elites maintain power?
  • Why does the existence of monumental architecture, such as the temple at Chavín de Huántar, imply that some sort of political organization must have existed?
This article is a modified derivative of "The Ancient Andes" by World History Boundless, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.