A Brief History of Peru

By Tim Lambert

The Chavin in Peru

By about 2,500 BC people in what is now, Peru began farming. By about 1,800 BC they were making pottery. The first South American civilization was the Chavin. It arose in what is now Peru in about 900 BC. The Chavin did not invent writing but they were skilled architects, stonemasons, potters, and goldsmiths. They built in both brick and stone and their engineers were capable of building both dams and reservoirs.

Chavin farmers irrigated their land and they grew maize (their staple food), squashes, and beans. They also grew cotton and they wove it on looms. They raised llamas and alpacas for meat and wool. The Chavin take their name from a great religious center at Chavin de Huantar. It has two stone temples.

Little is known about the Chavin religion but they worshiped a jaguar god. They buried the dead with goods including pottery containers of food and drink. They probably believed the dead would need them in the next life. However, the Chavin civilization disappeared by about 200 BC.

Later Cultures in Peru

In southeast Peru, another culture called the Paracas flourished between about 400 BC and 300 AD. They built large a number of large settlements on artificial mounds. They also buried their leaders on the dry and wind-swept Paracas Peninsula. The climate mummified several bodies and also preserved their clothes.

Later from about 100 BC to about 700 AD, a culture called the Nazca existed in Southeast Peru. They are famous for creating the Nazca lines, patterns that cross the desert and are best seen from the air. They include animals such as spiders and monkeys. The exact purpose of the lines is unknown.

The Moche in Peru

Further north a culture called the Moche or Mochica flourished from about 50 AD to about 700 AD. They lived in coastal valleys in Northern Peru. Like other Peruvian cultures, Moche farmers built canals to irrigate their crops. They grew maize, potatoes, and peanuts. They also grew cotton. The Moche were a warlike people and warriors had a high status in their society.

However, the Moche were also traders. They imported things like feathers from the Amazon. The Moche were dexterous goldsmiths and silversmiths. They were also skilled potters. The Moche also built pyramid temples. Their greatest temple was the Huaca Del Sol (Temple of the Sun). Its base measured 224 meters by 134 meters and it stood 46 meters high. It took at least 50 million adobe bricks to build the temple.

In the later years of the Moche culture, two empires grew up in what is now Peru.

In the north was the empire of Tiwanaku, with its capital across the border in Bolivia. It began its rise to greatness about 500 AD and by the time it was at its peak about 850 AD Tiwanaku controlled about 350,000 square kilometers of territory. The people of the Tiwanaku empire are noted for their skill as stonemasons and potters.

In the south of Peru, another strong state called Huari grew up. Huari began to grow about 600 AD and soon controlled a wide area. The people of Huari also traded over very long distances. However, both these states Tiwanaku and Huari collapsed about 1100 AD.

By about 1,000 AD a race called the Chimu created an empire in Northern Peru with its capital at Chan Chan. The Chimu worshiped the Moon. They believed the Moon caused it to rain and also controlled thunder and lightning. The Chimu also mummified their dead. The body was put in a sitting position and then tied with ropes. It was then wrapped in cloth.

The Chimu were also deft potters and metalworkers. Their craftsmen worked in gold and silver and also made blades of copper and bronze for tools. The Chimu also dug irrigation canals and built reservoirs. The Chimu were conquered by the Incas in about 1466.

The Inca Empire in Peru

The Incas ruled a great empire in South America – but only for a short time. At its peak, the Incas Empire lasted less than a century before it was destroyed by the Spaniards. In about 1300 the Incas founded their capital city of Cuzco. They were only a small tribe but they came to rule a vast empire including most of Peru and parts of Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and northwest Argentina. The expansion began in 1438 under their ruler Pachakuti and continued under his successors.

Inca Society

At the top of Inca society was the emperor, the Sapa Inca. (His title means unique Inca). The Incas believed their ruler was descended from the sun god and he was treated with great respect. Visitors had to remove their footwear if they approached the Sapa Inca and they had to carry a burden on their back to show their respect for him. When he traveled the Sapa Inca was carried in a litter.

Below the Sapa Inca was the nobles. Below them was a class of men called curacas. They were not necessarily Incas. When the Incas conquered a people they took the leader’s sons and taught them to rule the Inca way. They then became curacas. At the bottom of Inca society were the craftsmen and farmers.

All the people were part of extended families called Ayllus. Each one was ruled by a man called one of the curacas.

In theory, the Sapa Inca owned all the land and wealth in the empire. The Sapa Inca gave farmers land to grow food. In return, they had to do some work for him. The Sapa Inca reserved some land for himself and some were set aside to support the temples and priests. The Inca farmers had to pay a kind of tax by working on the Sapa Inca’s and temple’s land. Sometimes they also had to work on projects like building roads and bridges.

Inca Religion

The Incas were polytheists (they worshiped several different gods). The most important god was Inti, the sun god. The Incas also worshiped Quilla the moon goddess, and wife of the sun. They also worshiped Illapa god of thunder, who controlled the rain. The Incas had a host of priests and priestesses to serve their gods in temples throughout the empire. Priests were also surgeons who performed simple operations. Patients chewed coca leaves to dull the pain. Priests bit the heads of a type of ant and used the jaws as clips to close wounds.

The Conquistadors in Peru

The Inca Empire was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors (conquerors). Even before the Conquistadors arrived smallpox began to spread among the Incas. They had no resistance to this European disease and many of them died. So the Inca Empire was weakened even before Pizarro came.

Worse the Inca Empire was afflicted by civil war. When the emperor Huayna died in 1527 he did not name a successor. There were two claimants to the throne. Huayna had many wives. His ‘chief’ wife or coya had a son called Huascar. However, he had an older brother called Atahualpa. His mother was one of Huaynas ordinary wives.

The two half-brothers Huascar and Atahualpa fought a civil war. Atahualpa eventually won and he wreaked terrible revenge on his enemies. However, when the Spaniards came Atahualpa’s surviving enemies were willing to join them against the emperor. In 1532 a small force of Spaniards, 100 infantry, and 67 cavalrymen arrived on the coast. They were led by Francisco Pizarro (c.1475-1541).

At first, the Spaniards inspected the country then they entered a town called Cajamarca. Atahualpa was staying in a camp nearby. He was not afraid of the small group of strangers. After all, he had thousands of soldiers at his command. However, Pizarro planned to kidnap him. Atahualpa and several thousand bodyguards entered a square in the town. There were only a few entrances to the square, which were easily blocked. Furthermore, the Spaniards hid guns in the buildings around the square.

A Spanish friar (friars were like monks) approached the Sapa Inca and offered him a bible. Atahualpa had never seen a book before and he threw it onto the ground. Angrily the friar called on the Spaniards to avenge what he thought was an insult to God. The Spanish fired cannons and muskets and the cavalry charged. (Incas had never seen horses before and the sight of a man charging on a horse must have been terrifying). The Spaniards were also protected by steel armor and they carried steel swords. (Steel was a metal unknown to the Incas). The bodyguards had little chance against the Spaniards and thousands were slaughtered in the square.

Atahualpa himself was made a prisoner. The Inca Empire was rather like a pyramid with the Sapa Inca at the top. Orders flowed from him. Capturing him was rather like cutting the head from a body. Without him, the Incas did not know what to do.

Eventually, Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and a small room with silver twice over if the Spaniards would let him go. In the meantime, Spanish reinforcements arrived. However when the gold and silver were collected Pizarro had no intention of letting the Sapa Inca go. He claimed that Atahualpa was plotting against him and the Sapa Inca was tried for treason and sentenced to death. At first, he was sentenced to be burned. Atahualpa was horrified because he believed his spirit would be destroyed if his body was burned and he could not enter the afterlife. Instead, he agreed to be baptized a Christian and he was strangled with a rope.

The Spaniards then ruled through a puppet, which they made the Sapa Inca. However, the puppet Sapa Inca soon became disenchanted and he fled from Cusco. In 1536 he raised armies to besiege both Cuzco and Lima (which the Spaniards founded in 1535).

However, both sieges failed. The Incas besieged Cuzco again in 1537 but again failed. However, the Inca resistance did not end. The puppet Sapa Inca fled to the east of Cuzco with his supporters and ruled a small Inca state called Vilcabamba. It was finally conquered by the Spaniards in 1572.

Colonial Peru

After the destruction of the Inca empire, Peru became a Spanish viceroy. The Spanish took much of the land in Peru and the natives were made to work on it. Other natives were made to work in silver mines where they died in their thousands.

Furthermore, European diseases such as smallpox, to which they had no resistance, decimated the natives of Peru. So the Spaniards brought African slaves to replace them. The Spaniards also tried to convert the natives of Peru to Christianity. However, the natives kept their old religion under a Christian veneer.

Independent Peru

In the late 18th century there were native rebellions in Peru although none were successful discontent continued to simmer. Furthermore, the British colonies in North America provided an example of how colonists could break free from the parent country. Later the ideas of the French Revolution reached Peru. Finally, the Spanish colonies in South America rebelled. In 1820 General Jose de San Martin landed on the coast of Peru with 5,000 Argentine and Chilean soldiers. He occupied Lima and declared Peruvian independence on 28 July 1821. The royalists fought on but they were crushed at the Battle of Ayacucho on 9 December 1824.

There followed decades of political instability in Peru. However, for most of the period 1845-1862, General Raman Castilla was president of Peru and he restored order. Under his rule, Peru prospered by selling guano (bird droppings used as fertilizer). The first railway in Peru was built in 1851 and the African slaves were freed. However, by 1880 the guano supply was running out.

Then between 1879 and 1883, Peru fought a war with Chile over deposits of sodium nitrate. It was called the War of the Pacific and it ended in humiliation for Peru. By the treaty of Ancon in 1883 Peru was forced to surrender territory to Chile.

In 1885 General Andres Caceres became dictator of Peru. He ruled Peru until 1895 when Nicolas de Pierola led a revolution. n 20th Century Peru n Under Presidents Pierola (1895-1899), Jose Pardo (1904-1908), and Guillermo Billinghurst (1912-1914) Peru prospered. Exports of sugar and cotton boomed. Peru also exported oil and rubber. More railways were built and factories opened.

The urban working class in Peru grew and in 1919 trade unions held two general strikes to demand an 8-hour day. Augusto Leguia was president from 1908-1912 and he came to power again in 1919. He ruled for eleven years. This period is called the Oncenio from the word once, meaning eleven.

However, the depression of the 1930s meant demand for Peru’s exports slumped and the country faced an economic crisis. In August 1930 Leguia was deposed by a military coup.

Then in 1924, Victor Raul Haya de la Torre founded the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). In 1931 Haya de la Torre stood for president. Sanchez Cerro beat him but APRA claimed the election was fraudulent. A virtual civil war began between APRA and the government. Sanchez Cerro was assassinated in 1933. He was succeeded by General Oscar Benavides. In 1948 the army led another coup and General Manuel Odria came to power. He ruled until 1956 when Manuel Prado became president.

In 1963 Fernando Belaunde became president of Peru. However, in 1968 the army staged another coup. General Juan Velasco took power. The new government nationalized many industries in Peru and reformed agriculture. However, by 1975 Peru was suffering from inflation, unemployment, and growing public debt. In August 1975 General Francisco Morales Bermudez replaced Velasco in another coup. However, in 1980 elections for a president were held.

Unfortunately from 1976 onward, Peru suffered terrorist attacks from the Sendero Luminoso (shining path). However, in September 1990 Abimael Guzman the leader of Sendero was captured. In 1992 Alberto Fujimori became president. He managed to tame inflation. Fujimori resigned in November 2000.

Peru in the 21st Century


Alan Garcia was elected president of Peru in 2006. Ollanta Humala became president in 2011. However, the economy of Peru is growing steadily. Poverty is declining. In 2009 the US-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement came into effect. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski became the president of Peru in 2016. In 2020 the population of Peru was 32 million.

Last revised 2022