Martín Chambi, Panorama of Machu Picchu, ca. 1924. Gelatin silver prints, 18 x 48 cm (7 1/8x 18 ¾ in.). Courtesy of the Jan Mulder Collection

A Topical History of the Central Andes

Paul R. Davis

Running along the western side of South America, the Andes Mountains traverse the national borders of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. They are a vast system of mountains, high-altitude plains, and fertile riverine valleys that divide dense tropical regions of the continent’s interior from the arid coastline and resource-rich Pacific Ocean. This remarkable topographical diversity is equaled by the layered histories and cultural practices of Andean people.

The Central Andes—a cultural region running from the modern borders of southern Ecuador to northern Chile—supported a rich, interconnected history of ancient civilizations. Dating to at least the third millennium BCE, the Caral archaeological complex in the Supe Valley of Peru represents one of the earliest urban settlements and ceremonial complexes in the Central Andes and South America. As is true for the larger Andean world, this particular region consists of numerous archaeological sites producing overlaid narratives about the past. The names of cultures, civilizations, or empires frequently derive from the contemporaneous place names of such archaeological sites. How people may have referred to the land or even themselves is often not known. Archeological stratigraphy as well as stylistic continuities and changes in architecture, artifacts, and iconography build up our understanding of these early civilizations and how they may have overlapped and interacted.

It is already safe to say, for instance, that there is no common denominator for all the styles of the various Andean cultures, but that each is related to some of the others in style, technique, or subject matter in what might be called a network of Andean characteristics.(1)

Interactive Map of the Andes

See legend at upper-left arrow icon

Since the 1940s, scholars have imagined the ancient history of Andean civilizations as periods of expanding and contracting regional political control, the centers and boundaries of which continue to be refined based on new archaeological studies.(2) Generally, the chronology of the Andes before the 16th century is divided into seven major historical phases: the Pre-Ceramic Period began in the remote past, giving way in about 1800 BCE to the Formative Period, which was followed by three so-called Horizons (Early, Middle, Late) separated by two Intermediate Periods (Early and Late). During Horizons, geographic regions were drawn together in some way, ranging from military conquest and political incorporation through the charismatic appeal of religions. Objects, architectural styles, and/or settlement layouts at widely distributed archaeological sites were similar. The lack of Indigenous texts, centuries of looting, and the destruction of archaeological remains by modern urban and agricultural development limit our understanding of the ancient Andean past, but archaeological discoveries persistently revise the ways scholars interpret the past, including the interactions between the people of different Andean regions.

The Chavín culture (ca. 900–200 BCE), named after the site Chavín de Huantar studied in 1919 by the team of Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello (1880–1947), was the first example of a Horizon culture. The next was the Middle Horizon Wari culture (ca. 600–1000), which was based at its eponymous capitol Wari (also spelled Huari). As told in the book Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, the consensus is that the Wari civilization was a dominant imperial power during the Middle Horizon and a forebear of the powerful Inca Empire, which began its rise to power in about 1400 and went on to become the overarching culture of the Late Horizon, which ended in the mid-16th century with the Spanish conquest. The finding of Inca objects together with much earlier Wari artifacts, such as the blue-and-yellow macaw feathered panels, at the site of Corral Redondo in the Churunga Valley, Peru, may imply continuity between these distinct civilizations and certainly testifies to the importance of the sacred place at which the objects were buried.

Conversely, spans in the archaeological record that are punctuated by a heterogeneity of independent, regionally political entities are considered Intermediate Periods. Even though interregional trade and other types of exchange surely persisted, major cultural events were more tightly focused in smaller regions, as was the case with cultures along portions of the Peruvian coast. Many of the textile fragments, polychrome ceramic wares, and other works in the Menil’s permanent collection are attributed to Intermediate Period cultures and, as other sections of this publication make clear, they were central to the ritual maintenance of life and the cosmos. In the north of Peru, the Vicús (ca. 200 BCE–600 CE) and Moche (ca. 100–800; also known as the Mochica) cultures flourished during the Early Intermediate Period. The oldest objects from the Central Andes in the museum’s collection are polychrome ceramic vessels attributed to the Nazca (ca. 100 BCE–800 CE) on the south coast of Peru. The fish-like beings with razor sharp teeth depicted on the round-bottom vessel, which has been reconstructed from at least ten fragments, are a common Nazca motif. They are thought to represent orcas, sharks, dolphins, or a composite of these and other sea creatures.(3) In several instances, frequently on vessels with two spouts joined by a bridge, a classic form of south coast ceramics, this fish-like being carries severed trophy heads. Another Nazca round-bottom vessel depicts several small fish, possibly sardines or anchovies, painted in alternating deep reds and salmon-orange on a black central band.(4) These wares underscore the astute observation of the natural world and the dependency of Andean cultures living near coastal regions on the rich food source of the Pacific Ocean.

During the 1400s, the Inca conquered much of the Central Andes. The north coast Chimú were their fiercest opponents, but they too yielded sometime in the 1460s.(5) During this period, the Inca developed their magnificent capitol, Cuzco, and other sites in their highland heartland, including Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, the famed royal sanctuary on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Colonial records indicate the Inca called their vast empire Tahuantinsuyu, a Quechua-language term meaning “the four parts together.” Centered in Cuzco, it stretched north to present-day Colombia and to the southern border of modern Chile, and extended to the eastern slopes of the Andes, with trade networks into the tropical forests of Brazil.

The 1532 arrival of the Spanish with a mandate for conquest began the European colonization of the Andes. Francisco Pizzaro (ca. 1470s–1541) and his conquistadores encountered the Inca in the midst of a fraternal war between Atahualpa and Huascar to become ruler (Sapa Inca) of the vast Inca empire. In 1533 Pizarro ordered the execution of Atahualpa, who refused to acknowledge the Spanish and pay tribute.(6) Resistance to foreign occupation continued until the late 1570s in areas that were difficult to access and subjugate, but the reign of the Inca ended with the defeat of their forces in the mountains of Vilcabamba and the execution of Tupac Amaru by the Viceroy of Francisco de Toledo in 1572.(7)

Spanish conquistadors and European missionaries forever transformed the fabric of Andean societies. The stone walls of pre-Inca and Inca sites and religious centers became the foundations upon which they erected new colonial ones. They solidified control over the region with the integration of Inca nobles and elites as administrators (caciques and kurakas) of local municipalities and provinces. Europeans also brought enslaved people from West and Central Africa to the Americas, and they became part of a hierarchical racialized caste system (casta). White Spaniards born in Spain (peninsulares) and in the Americas (criollos) distinguished themselves from mixed-race people of Spanish-Indian decent (mestizo, misti, or cholo), native Andeans (indios or naturales), mixed-race Africans (mulatos and sambos), and Africans (negros). Enslaved Andeans and Africans occupied the most negligible positions in society.(8)

The introduction of new diseases was devastating and a significant cause of population displacement and migration during the colonial period. So too was the coerced conversion to Catholicism of the local Andean people, though conversion might also be surreptitious or intentional and advantageous. The inextricable link between the importation of religion and new diseases manifested in the 16th-century Taki Unquy movement, which was a revolt against the imposition and expansion of Christianity in favor of returning to religious worship of ancient sacred entities (wak’as or huacas).(9) Uprisings against regional administrators and challenges to Spain’s civil authority to rule routinely occurred during the colonial period.(10) Following a decade of inconclusive military battles against Spain, which was then allied with Britain and Portugal in war against France, Peru and Bolivia declared independence in 1821 and 1825 under the leadership of José de San Martin (1778–1850) and Simón Bolivar (1783–1830), respectively.

Indigenismo, a modernist movement during the late 19th and 20th centuries, was intent on elevating marginalized “indigenous” peoples—the different groups of Quechua- and Aymara-speaking rural farmers and pastoralists—as the heart of progress and culture in the Andes. José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), Luis E. Valcárcel (1891–1987), José Uriel Garcia (1894–1965), and other Andean intellectuals campaigned during the early 20th century to valorize the authenticity of the Indian through their writing and prominent positions in cultural and political institutions. Their efforts were concurrent with the rediscovery of the incredible achievements of ancient Andean civilizations, such as the rediscovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 by Hiram Bingham (1875–1956) and the carved granite monument (“Tello Obelisk”) at Chavín de Huantar by Julio C. Tello in 1919. Photography, introduced to the Andes in the mid-19th century, as well as other artistic practices emerged as powerful tools for visualizing indigenismo.(11) The equitable application of the movement’s ambitions was, however, constrained by a racial hierarchy inherited from the colonial era. Discussed in the next section by Zoila S. Mendoza, since the beginning of the colonial period, religious festivals and public performances have been sites readily available to all Andeans to confront social upheaval and transform imposed traditions into new forms of personhood and visual culture. As ongoing annual events, they continually redeploy the past anew for successive generations.(12) Despite this increasing distance from an idealized Andean past, these histories and reconfigurations of visual culture continue to reverberate in the world of the Central Andes.

  1. Wendell Clark Bennett, Ancient Art of the Andes (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1954), 9.
  2. Gordon R. Willey, “A Functional Analysis of ‘Horizon Styles’ in Peruvian Archaeology,” Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology 4 (1948): 8–15.
  3. Alan Lapiner, Pre-Columbian Art of South America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1976), 198; Alan R. Sawyer, Ancient Peruvian Ceramics: The Nathan Cummings Collection (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1966), 123; and Richard S. Townsend, “Deciphering the Nazca World: Ceramic Images from Ancient Peru,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 11, no. 2 (Spring 1985): 116–39.
  4. Donald A. Proulx, A Sourcebook of Nasca Ceramic Iconography (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006).
  5. Haagen D. Klaus, “Life and Death in the Central Andes: Human Biology, Violence, and Burial Patterns in Ancient Peru,” in The Andean World, ed. Linda J. Seligmann and Kathleen S. Fine-Dare (New York: Routledge, 2019), 96–112.
  6. Claudia Brosseder, “The Conquest from Andean Perspectives,” in The Andean World, ed. Seligmann and Fine-Dare, 161–74.
  7. Ibid.; Brian S. Bauer, Madeleine Halac-Higashimori, and Gabriel E. Cantarutti, Voices from Vilcabamba: Accounts Chronicling the Fall of the Inca Empire (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016).
  8. Zoila S. Mendoza, Shaping Society through Dance: Mestizo Ritual Performance in the Peruvian Andes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Rachel Sarah O’Toole, Bound Lives: Africans, Indians, and the Making of Race in Colonial Peru (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).
  9. Alcira Dueñas, “Viracocha vs. God: Andean Thought and Cultural Change in Colonial Bolivia,” in The Andean World, ed. Seligmann and Fine-Dare, 188–201.
  10. About 200 years after the execution of the last Inca rulers, José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera (1738–1781), a cacique who took the name Tupac Amaru II, along with a number of other regional Andean leaders, plotted a revolution against Spanish control. See Sergio Serulnikov, “Violence, Resistance, and Intercultural Adaptations,” in The Andean World, ed. Seligmann and Fine-Dare, 175–87.
  11. See Jorge Coronado, The Andes Imagined: Indigenismo, Society, and Modernity (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009); Beverly Adams and Natalia Majluf, The Avant-Garde Networks of Amauta: Argentina, Mexico, and Peru in the 1920s (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Lima: Asociación Museo de Arte de Lima; Austin, TX: Blanton Museum of Art, 2019); and Zoila S. Mendoza, Creating Our Own: Folklore, Performance, and Identity in Cuzco, Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
  12. See Mendoza, Shaping Society through Dance, and Mendoza, Creating Our Own.