Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • understand the effects of extreme and varied environments on cultural trajectories in South America
  • describe the cultural connections between the Pacific coast/Andean region and the lowlands/Amazonia in both early and later times
  • discuss the early development of complex social behavior in the Andes and Pacific coast
  • explain the core ceremonial features of complex Andean civilizations
  • describe the subsistence practices used to cope with vertical environmental zones, high altitude, deserts, steep terrain, and other environmental challenges
  • characterize the Andean Periods and Horizons in terms of trends and conditions
  • describe each complex culture arising in the Andes, coastal Pacific and High Sierra, and explain the differences and continuities seen over time
  • outline the religious beliefs and mortuary traditions throughout the Andean sequence, and how they change or persist through time
  • describe the major monuments and artistic achievements of Andean civilizations
  • explain how the Inca acquired, consolidated, and maintained the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas
  • understand the linguistic and material evidence for Amazonian prehistory
  • trace the diaspora of Amazonian and Caribbean peoples
  • relate the connections, ideological, social, and material, between people living on either side of the Andes range
  • discuss the controversy and debate over complexity and urbanization in Amazonia
  • outline the evidence for complex societies now known in Amazonia
  • relate how new understanding of environment and biodiversity has changed theories about Amazonian cultural evolution
  • describe the features and artifacts associated with Amazonian cultures and traditions.

Chapter Summary


South America is characterized by environmental extremes, which confronted its inhabitants with disparate conditions and resources. Paleoindian colonists diverged within different environments, some continuing to forage in the far south, while agriculture fostered complex societies in the Amazonian tropics and Andes Mountains.


The Andes and the Desert Coast

Along the Pacific desert coast, people began exploiting marine resources by at least 9000 bc. In northern Chile, sedentary Chinchorro fishermen began mummifying their dead c. 6000 bc, while their counterparts in central Peru began erecting mounds around 3000 bc at sites such as Aspero. Inland, mixed economies supported sedentary communities with platform mounds at sites such as Caral, and sierra settlements included Nanchoc and La Galgada.

In the Andes, the hunting and gathering era is called the Lithic or Archaic period. In Peru, it is subdivided into a Preceramic period (c. 3000–1800 bc), with large architectural projects. During the Ceramic period, intensive agropastoralism was enhanced with pottery and heddle-loom weaving. In northern Peru, this was adopted around 1800 bc, reaching the Lake Titicaca area c. 1400 bc, and later still in arid Chile. The agropastoral occupation of the Lake Titicaca region is subdivided into Formative and Classic episodes, the latter associated with the Tiwanaku empire.

A ceramic chronology creates three periods and three interspersed horizons. These periods correlate with episodes of coastal prosperity: the Initial period (1800–400 bc), when coastal irrigation and sierra agropastoralism supported population growth and the construction of large monuments, such as at Sechín Alto. The Moche and Nazca cultures produced vibrant arts on the coast during the Early Intermediate period (200 bc–ad 650), and during the Late Intermediate period the lords of the Chimu empire (ad 1000–1476), ruled from the city of Chan Chan.

Horizons correlate with expansions of sierra influence, beginning with the Early Horizon (400–200 bc), when Chavín religious ideology spread through the northern Andes. The Middle Horizon (ad 650–1000) saw the spread of the Wari state from the central sierra and the Tiwanaku state from the Lake Titicaca region. Finally, in the Late Horizon (1476–1533) the Incas emerged.

Amazonia and the Atlantic Coast

Along South America’s Atlantic coast, preceramic sedentary populations created impressive refuse/habitation mounds, called sambaquis, sculpted into major ceremonial sites as early as 4000–3000 bc, but largely between 2000 bc and ad 1. Fluvial shell mounds are found along the Amazon, such as at Taperinha where ceramics date to 5500 bc, and the Lower Amazon Mina tradition, dating to c. 3500 bc.

In Amazonia, the earliest semi-settled populations were present by middle Holocene times (c. 4000–2000 bc). By 2000 bc, incipient agriculturalists are reflected in the widespread appearance of ceramics, particularly griddles for cooking manioc flatbread.

The Amazonian Formative (1000 bc –ad 500) is characterized by settled agriculturalists. Partially overlapping the Formative, a “Regional Developmental” period (ad 1–1000) involved inter-regional systems of interaction. Next, a broad regional “Classic” period (ad 1000–1500) saw the emergence of political economies. European arrival in the Caribbean (1490s) and Brazil (1500) created phases of collapse and reconstitution.


Andean Preceramic people subsisted on wild foods, yet built earthworks from early times. Plastered mounds had steep sides, rising in wide terraces with broad central staircases for elite display. The platforms are considered temples and civic-ceremonial facilities. Circular sunken courts with opposing staircases form a distinct type of monument. Associated rites and beliefs form the “Plaza Hundida Tradition.”

Tectonic and El Niño disasters impoverished fishing and farming around 1800 bc, bringing an end to some regional Preceramic developments, though elsewhere agropastoralism gradually advanced southward.


Agriculture spread first to low, tropical areas before arriving at the desert coast and central Andean Cordillera. Ecuador’s low, well-watered mountains supported the Valdivia farming people, who produced pottery by 3000 bc.

The Initial period begins about 1800 bc in northern Peru. Pottery, weaving, and agropastoralism enabled the establishment of numerous sites inland. Populations grew. Each community erected civic and ceremonial mounds, sunken courts, and walled enclosures. After a millennium of activity, abandonment began between 900 and 800 bc, perhaps related to centuries of drought.

Chavín and the Early Horizon, c. 400–200 BC

Chavín de Huantar lies in the northern sierra. Two conjoined U-shaped platform mounds comprise the Castillo, built in one episode toward the end of the Initial period. Framing a circular sunken court is the smaller Old Temple; a rectangular sunken court fronts the larger New Temple. The temples functioned simultaneously until around 200 bc.


During the Early Intermediate period (200 bc–ad 600), exploitable environments were fully occupied, and long droughts curtailed prosperity. Monumental sites decreased, giving way to simple residential communities, some fortified, indicating hostilities. Government lost much of its metaphysical theme, and was carried out by an elite class, called kuraka, who ruled by claiming descent from sacred forebears. The kuraka monopolized the production of prestige goods. The Early Intermediate has been called the Master Craftsmen and Regional Developmental period, due to this arts patronage.

The Moche culture, often considered the first native South American state, arose around ad 200, as drought lessened and the kuraka adopted a new ideology. The temples of the Sun and Moon (Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna) in the Moche Valley were the central place of an integrated polity.

A massive El Niño flood, sand dune incursions, and a drought between ad 562 and 594 impacted the Moche culture. Initially enduring at a lesser level at some sites, it disappeared c. ad 700–800.

Nazca and the South Coast

The Nazca culture is partially contemporary with Moche (c. 200 bc–ad 650). Nazca weavers and potters depicted polychrome abstract and realistic shapes: plants, animals, people, and supernaturals, but without scenes of myths or rituals. Nazca is famous for its desert ground drawings (geoglyphs) on the plains; lines and figures created by removing rocks to expose lighter surfaces below.


The Inca had antecedents in Middle Horizon times (c. ad 650–1000), when the Wari ruled highland and coastal Peru, while Tiwanaku ruled southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile from near Lake Titicaca. Wari intensified agriculture through irrigating mountain slopes with terrace systems, while Tiwanaku farmed high-altitude crops, herding llama and alpaca. Both states were undermined by drought after about ad 1050, when economic stress and social tensions led both to collapse and fragment into small polities.

The Late Horizon, 1476–1533: Cuzco and the Incas

The archaeological record suggests that the Inca originated around ad 1000, after the Wari collapse. The imperial economy was based on agricultural taxation, textile tribute, and work draft. Women were obliged to weave textiles; men to work on building projects. Deceased elites were mummified and venerated, residing in their former quarters or in sanctuaries, attending major ritual events with the living. Mountains were sacred sources of rainfall and water, propitiated with peak-top sacrifices of goods and people.

The Inca empire was devastated by a smallpox pandemic of European origin, and its cities were plundered. The last independent ruler, Atahualpa, was killed by Francisco Pizarro’s forces.


The Amazonian Formative period (c. 1000 bc–ad 500), was followed by the Regional Developmental and Classic periods from ad 1 to 1500, which brought growth and diversification in technology, culture, and population. By 1550, large polities, ranked into regional hierarchies, and equally large and powerful confederacies (e.g. the Tupinamba) that lacked rigid hierarchies were both present. Small, egalitarian groups also continued to exist.


The huge region of Amazonia was long ignored by archaeologists and evidence of large, socially complex, sedentary communities and earthworks has only recently emerged. Because of a lack of archaeological study, reconstructions of the origins and dispersals of ancient Amazonians are often based on historical linguistics.

Amazonian agriculture dates back to c. 5000–6000 bc, but innovatation in swidden (slash-and-burn) agricultural systems may have been the engine of early diaspora c. 1000–500 bc.

Some Amazonian societies became complex through institutions based on hereditary social hierarchy or meritocracies, while others chose to live in small communities, similar to ethnographically known Amazonians.


From ad 1 to 500, Amazonian societies developed discrete regional social systems. The Arawaks and Tupiguarani had already spread to distant places, and by ad 500, large-scale population movements ended.

By ad 500–1000, large, regional polities rose along Amazonian rivers. Trade in precious stones and metals is seen, and the Polychrome Ceramic Tradition was shared from Marajó to Peru.

The Lower Amazon

The Marajoara people of Marajó Island (c. ad 400–1400) created the earliest expression of the Polychrome Tradition, especially painted and modeled anthropomorphized burial urns.

The later Santarem (or Tapajós) culture, known for its artistic traditions, was an Amerindian state that survived into the 16th and 17th centuries. The related Konduri ceramic style, linked to Carib populations of the Guiana shield, indicates that Santarem ceramics were the result of hybridization between northern and Amazonian populations.

The Central Amazon

Survey, excavations and mapping of Manaus area sites reveal large centers. Fine ceramics and ceremonial axes indicate trade, but many such items would be invisible archaeologically: ethnohistoric goods included tropical woods, feathers, animals, salt, medicinal plants, and pigments.

The Upper Amazon

Immigrant tropical forest farmers founded villages by c. 200 bc, which grew into later riverbank towns. As established communities interacted with migrants, warfare occurred but cultural pluralism also resulted.

The Orinoco and Caribbean

Between at least 1000 and 500 bc, Saladoid-Barrancoid Arawak speakers dominated the Orinoco. The Arawak-speakers of the Caribbean in 1492, generally called Taino, lived in large plaza settlements and were ruled by chiefs at centers with major plazas, causeways, and other ceremonial structures.

The Southern Amazon

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Europeans encountered dense, sedentary, mainly Arawak populations in the southern Amazon, with “temples” (ceremonial houses), “idols,” and an elaborate ritual life. Recent archaeological research reveals sites of large size and complexity among Arawak cultures.

The Upper Xingu region is important, since cultural continuity between late prehistoric Arawak polities (c. ad 800 onward) and contemporary Xinguano peoples can be demonstrated, providing an unbroken record of the region’s development. Recently, land clearance and satellite imagery have revealed large geometric earthworks or geoglyphs.

Box Features

Key Controversy: Preceramic Diet and Economy

Key Controversy: The Rank Revolution

Key Controversy: “Amazonian Dark Earths” and Anthropogenic Landscapes

Key Controversy: Amazonian Mound Builders

Key Controversy: Amazonian Urbanism?

Key Site: Sechín Alto

Key Site: Sipán and the Presentation Theme

Key Site: The Sacred Valley of the Incas and Machu Picchu

Key words and terms

Climate, geography, environment

  • environmental extremes
  • wet and dry lowlands
  • drought conditions
  • El Niño events
  • Humboldt Current
  • Andes Mountains; eastern and western ranges
  • the Cordillera
  • earthquakes
  • Lake Titicaca
  • the High Sierra
  • high altitude conditions
  • low oxygen levels, cold temperatures
  • low biodiversity
  • agropastoralism
  • vertical ecological zones
  • desert coast
  • irrigation in valleys
  • Amazonia
  • high tropical rainforest, seasonal deciduous forests,
  • floodplain and gallery forests, the cloud or montaña forest,
  • savannas and parklands, riparian and other wetlands
  • Amazonian biodiversity
  • Amazon River
  • Solimöes River
  • várzea and terra firme
  • Atlantic and Pacific coasts
  • Caribbean sea
  • Maracaibo Bay (Colombia)
  • Amazon estuary
  • Marajó Island
  • Anajas River
  • Pará River
  • Mata Atlantica
  • Orinoco River
  • Solimöes river
  • Negro river
  • savannas, parkland, or scrub forests
  • closed or gallery tropical forests
  • Guiana and Brazilian highlands
  • Andean foothills
  • interfluvial
  • pronounced seasonal change
  • Montaña forests
  • Supe river/valley
  • Zana river
  • Santa river/valley
  • Ica Valley
  • Ucayali river
  • Chicama river/valley
  • Chillon river
  • Rio Chao
  • Hurra Valley
  • Casma river/valley
  • Rio Mala
  • Viru river/valley
  • Chicama river/valley
  • Nepeña river/valley
  • Jetepeque river/valley
  • Lambayeque river/valley
  • Nazca river/valley
  • Moche river/valley
  • the altiplano
  • the Ayacucho sierra
  • Rio Huantanay
  • Rio Tullumay
  • Moquegua Valley
  • Cerro Baul
  • Leche River
  • Xingu River
  • Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles
  • Rio Negro
  • Urubamba River
  • Paraguay River
  • Brazilian Serra do Mar
  • Napo River
  • Meta River
  • Llanos de Moxos
  • Gran Chaco

Subsistence species

  • potato
  • cotton
  • gourd
  • chili peppers
  • beans
  • achira
  • pacae
  • guayaba
  • manioc
  • sweet potato
  • squashes
  • llama
  • alpaca
  • fish


  • Runa Simi
  • Arawak language group
  • Tupiguarani language group
  • Carib language group
  • Gê language group
  • Kocama/Omagua languages
  • Proto-Arawak
  • Pano


  • Ruth Shady
  • Hiram Bingham
  • Betty Meggers
  • Clifford Evans
  • Emilio Estrada
  • Donald Lathrap
  • Scott Raymond
  • Julian Steward
  • Louis Faron
  • Robert Carneiro
  • Erland Nordenskiöld

Ancient People

  • Taycanamu
  • Naymlap
  • Manco Capac
  • Pachacuti
  • Cieza de Leon
  • Atahualpa
  • Francisco Pizarro
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Pedro Cabral
  • Francisco de Orellana
  • Friar Gaspar Cavajal

Periods, Phases, Horizons, Cultures


  • Chinchorro
  • Lithic or Archaic period
  • Preceramic period (c. 3000–1800 bc)
  • Ceramic period (c. 1800 bc on)
  • Lake Titicaca Formative and Classic periods
  • Initial period (1800–400 bc)
  • Early Intermediate period (200 bc –ad 650)
  • Master Craftsmen period; Regional Developmental period
  • Gallinazo culture
  • Moche state
  • Nazca state
  • Late Intermediate period
  • Lambayeque
  • Chimor empire (ad 1000–1476),
  • Early Horizon (400–200 bc)
  • Chavín state
  • Paracas culture
  • Pukara culture
  • Middle Horizon (ad 650–1000)
  • Wari state/empire
  • Tiwanaku state/empire
  • Late Horizon (1476–1533)
  • Inca Empire
  • Tawantinsuyu
  • Mohina state


  • Mina tradition c. 3500 bc
  • the Amazonian Formative (1000 bc – ad 500)
  • Regional Developmental period (ad 1–1000)
  • Classic period (ad 1000–1500)
  • European contact period (post-1492)
  • Gaván-period occupations (c. ad 300–1200)
  • Taino people
  • Caquetio people
  • Tupi people
  • Guarani people
  • “Nu-Arawak” the Aruaca and Maipure peoples
  • Marajoara people
  • Santarem, or Tapajós culture
  • Xingu polity
  • Cumancaya people
  • Caimito people
  • Achagua people
  • Lokono people
  • Bauré, Pareci, Terêna, Xinguano (Arawak cultures)
  • Valdivia and Machalilla cultural phases


  • Caral (Peru)
  • Nanchoc (Peru)
  • La Galgada (Peru)
  • Kotosh (Peru)
  • Taperinha (Brazil)
  • Huaca Prieta (Peru)
  • Salinas de Chao (Peru)
  • Morteros (Peru)
  • Huaynuna (Peru)
  • Aspero (Peru)
  • Culebras (Peru)
  • Bandurria (Peru)
  • Rio Seco (Peru)
  • El Paraiso (Peru)
  • Caral (Peru)
  • Real Alto (Peru)
  • Cerro Sechín (Peru)
  • Sechín Alto (Peru)
  • Pampa de los Llamas-Moxeke complex (Peru)
  • San Jose de Moro (Peru)
  • Chavín de Huantar (Peru)
  • Kuntur Wasi (Peru)
  • Paracas (Peru)
  • Gallinazo Group (Peru)
  • Moche (Peru)
  • Huancaco (Peru)
  • Pampa de Los Incas (Guadalupito) (Peru)
  • Pañamarca (Peru)
  • El Brujo (Peru)
  • Dos Cabesas (Peru)
  • Sipán (Peru)
  • Cahuachi (Peru)
  • Tiwanaku (Peru)
  • Pikillacta (Peru)
  • Omo (Peru)
  • Batan Grande (Peru)
  • Chotuna (Peru)
  • Tucumé Viejo (Peru)
  • Chan Chan (Peru)
  • Cuzco (Peru)
  • Chokepukio (Peru)
  • Machu Picchu (Peru)
  • Ollantaytambo (Peru)
  • Osvaldo site (Arawak)
  • Açutuba site (Bolivia)
  • Sangay (Ecuador)
  • Gran Pajetan (Peru)
  • Hupa-iya (Arawak)
  • Llanos de Moxos (Baures) (Bolivia)
  • Marajó mounds (Marajó Island)
  • Teso dos Bichos (Marajó Island)
  • Camutins mound group (Marajó Island)
  • Belém mound (Marajó Island)
  • Santarem (Brazil)
  • Manacapuru (Brazil)
  • Hatahara (Brazil)
  • Caguana (Puerto Rico)
  • En Bas Saline (Greater Antilles)
  • Real Alto (Ecuador)

Artifacts, features, buildings, structures

  • pottery
  • heddle-loom weaving
  • sambaquis
  • salgado
  • platform mounds
  • freestanding, one-room structures on mounds
  • ritual chambers
  • circular sunken courts
  • amphitheater, Templo Mayor (Caral)
  • Huaca de los Idolos, Huaca de los Sacrificios (Aspero)
  • U-shaped complexes
  • the Sechín combatants bas-relief (Cerro Sechín)
  • the Castillo, Old Temple, New Temple, Staff God stele (Chavín de Huantar)
  • mummy bundles, mummification
  • Paracas polychrome ceramic tradition
  • fabrics in dazzling colors, embroidered clothing
  • gold ornaments
  • trophy heads
  • Pukara style polychrome pottery; keros
  • mud-bricks/adobes
  • Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna (Moche)
  • Moche ritual drinking vessels with themes or stories
  • Moche sacrificial platform
  • Great Temple (Cuachi)
  • Nazca ground drawings/geoglyphs
  • Gateway of the Sun (Tiwanaku)
  • Wari, D-shaped buildings/temples
  • Huaca Larga (Tucume Viejo)
  • ciudadelas; Rivero and Tschudi ciudadelas; Audiencias (Chan Chan)
  • Sacsahuaman, the Coricancha, golden House of the Sun, silver temple of the moon, Coricancha garden of gold (Cuzco)
  • La Gruta ceramic tradition
  • Saladoid and Barrancoid ceramic traditions
  • Guarita Amazonian Polychrome tradition
  • Marajoara polychrome ceramics, anthropomorphized burial urns
  • Santarem ceramic style
  • Konduri ceramic style
  • Shipibo-Conibo ceramic style
  • Greater Antillean ball courts (bateys), circular plazas
  • Arawak rubber ball game
  • the Charnel House (Real Alto)

Terms, concepts

  • civic-ceremonial facilities
  • Kotosh religious tradition of burnt offerings
  • hierarchical organization needed for moundbuilding
  • circular sunken courts
  • Plaza Hundida tradition
  • mound construction: labor drawn from a broader populace
  • symbiotic relationship between fishing and farming on Pacific Coast
  • Initial period: pottery, weaving, intensive farming, and herding, monumental architecture
  • composite supernatural beings, feline, canine, serpentine
  • Chavín Staff God cult, Horizon
  • Early Horizon: innovative technologies in cloth production, metallurgy; development of elite class
  • Kuraka
  • Early Intermediate period: less prosperity, fewer monumental facilities, fortified villages, development of elite kuraka class who ruled as divine intermediaries, patronized arts
  • Moche iconography: battle between supernatural beings, death and burial of a king, warrior combat theme, presentation theme
  • Middle Horizon: spread of the Wari and Tiwanaku states
  • Wari: youthful, secular, militant, centralized, and hierarchical (Peru)
  • Tiwanaku: mature, religious, proselytizing, heterogeneous, confederated (southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile)
  • Late Intermediate period: Chimu consolidation
  • Late Horizon: Inca consolidation
  • Inca empire largest Native American empire, ethnically and linguistically diverse Inca lingua franca, Runa Simi
  • four suyu
  • Tawantinsuyu, “Land of the Four Quarters”
  • Cuzco as navel of the universe
  • the Sacred Valley of the Incas
  • “Inca by privilege” vs. “Inca by birth”
  • Inca political economy: agricultural taxation, textile tribute, and work draft
  • ancestor veneration, preservation, and curation of royal corpses, mummies
  • mountaintop sacrifices
  • ashlar and polygonal masonry
  • kancha, wasi
  • Amazonian and Caribbean linguistic diasporas
  • Amazonian diaspora causes: emergence of hierarchical systems of prestige and value, hereditary rank, a “founder’s ideology,” rivalry between high-ranking individuals
  • Amazonian circular village plan
  • tropical forest cosmology,
  • contact between Amazonian and Andean cultures
  • terra preta

Theories and hypotheses

  • the “maritime hypothesis”
  • hypotheses of seasonal dual residency and split subsistence activity
  • debate over urbanism/complex societies in Amazonia
  • circumscription theory of state formation
  • monocausal “prime-mover” explanations