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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 Hu;ntar, about 160 miles north of modern Lima, Peru.Chavin de Hu;ntar 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 Hu;ntar’s temples.

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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 Chim;. The Chim; 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.

The Inca Empire didn’t last long. After Huayna Capac died in 1525 CE, his sons battled over the empire in a civil war that lasted several years.

One of them, Atahualpa, had just conquered the other when the Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco Pizarro showed up in Peru in 1532 CE. Pizarro decided he wanted control over the Inca Empire, and he took the new emperor hostage. Even though the Incas paid the ransom, the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway.

It didn’t take long for the Inca Empire, ravaged by disease and Spanish brutality, to fall. The last emperor was murdered by the Spanish in 1572 CE, and the empire simply disappeared.

Lesson Summary

Our journey through the history of the Andean peoples has now come to an end, but let’s review. The Chavin civilization began about 1000 BCE and reached its peak beginning in 850 BCE with the building of the great city Chavin de Huántar. 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. After 500 BCE, traders began to use llamas as pack animals to carry their goods up and down the mountain trails to Chavin de Huántar, which grew into a prosperous center for trade as well as religion.The Chavin civilization disintegrated by 200 BCE after people began to build religious and trade centers closer to their homes.

The Chavin civilization was followed by several smaller, more localized civilizations, including the Mochica, the peoples of Tiwanaku and Wari, and the Sican, and the Chimú.The Incas appeared on the scene about 1200 CE when their leader Manco Capac established the city of Cuzco. In 1438 CE, Pachacuti became the ruler of the Incas and began building an empire.

His son Tupac and grandson Huayna Capac continued the work and before long, 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. Important characteristics of the Inca civilization included colonization, cooperative labor, a network of roads, a common language (Quechua), and quipus (knotted strings used for record keeping).The Incas were conquered by the Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers. The Inca Empire disappeared about 1572 CE as a result of disease and Spanish brutality, and our journey comes to a sad end.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Recognize the region of Peru known as the Andes
  • Describe the Chavin civilization and how they spread their power with trade
  • Identify how the Incas used might to build their empire
  • Recall the destruction of the Incas, thanks to Spain, through disease and military strength

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