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Ancient Andean Peoples: Chavin & Inca

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  • 0:02 The Chavin Civilization
  • 2:56 Civilizations in Between
  • 4:20 The Inca Civilization
  • 8:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the Chavin and Inca civilizations of South America. We will study the rise and fall of these two cultures, as well as their major characteristics.

The Chavin Civilization

Hang on for a wild ride. We're about to plunge into the jungles and mountains of Peru. Our journey will cross several centuries, and as we travel, we will learn about two civilizations that rose and fell in this area of South America. Our travels start about 1000 BCE when the Chavin civilization began to develop in the northern Andes mountains from the little farming villages that dotted the area. The culture grew slowly at first, but in about 850 BCE, it began to reach its peak when the Chavin people established their city, Chavin de Huántar, about 160 miles north of modern Lima, Peru.

Chavin de Huántar was a fascinating place built high in the mountains. It was filled with fanciful religious carvings, mysterious entrances, dramatic stone buildings, and high walls. The city was probably ruled by priests, administrators who handled daily business, and rich traders. Religion was central, and people came from miles around to bring tribute to the gods worshiped in Chavin de Huántar's temples. In fact, the Chavin religion and culture spread far and wide over the Andes and united most of the villages in the region politically as well as religiously, even without any military conquest. The rulers of Chavin de Huántar became quite powerful.

The Chavin peoples were skilled at metalwork, stonework, ceramics, tile work, textile weaving, dyeing methods, pottery, and bead making. Traders carried these goods, as well as the foodstuffs grown by village farmers, throughout the region. After 500 BCE, these traders began to use llamas as pack animals to carry their goods up and down the mountain trails of Chavin de Huántar, which grew into a prosperous center for trade as well as religion.

By about 300 BCE, however, things were beginning to change. People had grown tired of traveling long distances to get to Chavin de Huántar, as they began to build religious and trade centers closer to their homes. The influence of Chavin de Huántar declined. Fewer and fewer people came to worship and pay tribute. Fewer and fewer traders made their way up and down the mountain trails. The city's rulers lost power, and eventually the city and its temples were abandoned. The unity of the Chavin disintegrated, and by 200 BCE, the region contained only small, independent communities.

Civilizations in Between

As we continue our journey over the next several centuries, we see many small civilizations spring up and fade away in the Andes region. These were nearly all local cultures rather than widespread civilizations like the Chavin. The Mochica culture, for instance, which existed from about 200 BCE to 600 CE, was located on the coast of northern Peru. These people left massive drawings of animals, birds, and geometrical patterns on the coastal plain that scholars have called the Nazca Lines.

The people of the cities of Tiwanaku and Wari in the highlands were active from about 400 CE to 1000 CE, while along the coast the Sican culture, famous for its great pyramids, sprang up from the descendants of the Mochica peoples about 800 CE. Around the same time, more Mochica descendants further south developed their own culture, the Chimú. The Chimú were craftspeople, builders, and traders, but between 1465 CE and 1470 CE, they were overrun by another powerful culture that would become legendary: the Incas.

The Inca Civilization

The Incas are the most well-known of the Andean civilizations, and now our journey turns toward them. About 1200 CE, the small Inca tribe with its leader Manco Capac established a city named Cuzco high up in the Andes Mountains. They lived fairly quietly for the next two hundred years or so, but then, in 1438 CE, Pachacuti became the ruler of the Incas. He was definitely not content to remain in Cuzco. In fact, he dreamed of an empire, and he began to expand the Incas' influence by conquering neighboring tribes. He also strengthened the central government, instituted a uniform system of laws, established many trade routes, and built a grand new stone city called Machu Picchu.

Pachacuti's son Tupac continued his father's quest for an empire when he began his rule in 1471 CE, and the Incas reached their peak in the next generation under the ruler of Huayna Capac, who became emperor in 1493 CE. The Inca Empire, officially called Tahuantinsuyu, or Land of the Four Quarters, extended over 2,500 miles from Chile to Ecuador and controlled about ten million people. The Inca Empire was marked by several important characteristics:

  • Colonization - The Incas' government sent out colonists to settle in conquered areas, manage native peoples, and spread their culture.
  • Cooperative labor - The Incas worked together to farm their lands. Neighbors helped each other, and everyone worked together on lands reserved for the emperor and the gods. People also worked on projects for the government to pay the required labor tax.
  • A network of roads - About 14,000 miles of roads connected the corners of the Inca Empire. Way stations lined the roads about every mile and a half for the use of travelers.
  • A common language - Beginning with Pachacuti, Inca rulers required their subjects to learn and use a common language called Quechua.
  • Quipus - The Incas did not have a system of writing, but they kept track of administrative and tax information using knotted strings called quipus. These strings were various lengths and colors and featured different types of knots and patterns of knots and spaces that all had meanings and could record a tremendous amount of information.

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