pre-Columbian art and architecture

The Cultures of South America

Ancient Peru

The first great art style of the geographical area that is now Peru was that of the civilization that flourished at Chavín de Huántar in the northern highlands c.900 to 200 B.C. A more or less contemporaneous culture of the north coast produced a style of pottery known as Cupisnique. The Paracas culture of the south coast, of the same era, left some of the most beautiful textiles of pre-Inca Peru as well as fine pottery decorated with resin paint. Excellent painted ceramics and beautiful weavings were also characteristic of the Nazca civilization (c.200 B.C.–A.D. 600) to the south, which also produced the huge and mysterious "Nazca lines."

The Nazca's contemporaries on the north coast, the Mochica, surpassed them in the art of painted pottery. Battle scenes, rituals, animals, and mythological beings were masterfully depicted. Their ceramic "portrait vessels" in the form of human heads are the high point of realism in pre-Columbian art. They were also master builders, the Mochica Pyramid of the Sun being the largest in South America. During the following period (c.600–800), the Tiahuanaco culture gained ascendancy. With the decline of Tiahuanaco the kingdom of the Chimu flourished. Their capital, Chan Chan, has long been considered one of the great centers of ancient Peru.

The Inca

Chan Chan was surpassed only by the colossal achievements of the Inca, who conquered the Chimu in the latter part of the 15th cent. As engineers the Inca were unsurpassed in ancient America. Their agricultural terraces are still in use, and the extensive network of roads and bridges that spanned their empire would merit the envy of modern road builders. However, their cities and fortresses remain their towering achievement. The great cities of Cuzco and Machu Picchu and the imposing fortresses of Sacsahuamán and Ollantaytambo are typical examples of their skill. The Inca also excelled at stone carving and metalwork, achieving in this latter art a degree of perfection comparable to that reached anywhere in the world. Their civilization fell to the Spanish invaders in 1538.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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