Brief History of Peru

Peru will celebrate a milestone birthday on July 28, 2021, which will be 200 years of independence as a republic.  Peru’s history is a fascinating one, spanning several millennia, from the Pre-Inca cultures dating as far back as 5,000 years ago to the Inca Empire through the colonial era of the Viceroyalty to today.  Here is a brief history of these key periods that developed across the megadiverse territory that today is called Peru.

1 – The Pre-Inca Wonders

The first known civilization in Peru, and in the Americas, is the Caral culture, which dates back 5,000 years. Situated 182 kilometers north of Lima, near Barranca, it’s worthwhile to visit the Sacred City of Caral, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Exceptionally well-preserved, the site is impressive and includes large pyramidal mounds, with one that is 60 feet high and with a base the size of about 4 football fields.

Further north, between 600 and 700 kilometers from Lima and between the cities of Trujillo and Chiclayo, there are several archeologically significant sites to see while following La Ruta Moche or the Moche Route. Along the way are vestiges of the Mochica culture, who flourished from about 100 – 700 AD, and the Chimu culture, coming after at about 900 AD.  Archeological constructions from these civilizations include The Citadel of Chan Chan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as Senor de Sipán, Túcume, El Brujo and the Huacas del Sol and de la Luna.

In the region of Ancash, in a high valley of the Andes, is the former home of the Chavin culture and one of the earliest and best-known Pre-Columbian sites, which is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

To the south of Lima, the Paracas, Chincha and Nazca cultures lived, to name only a few.  Quite a magnificent site is yet another one on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the famous and mysterious Nazca Lines.  These are massive geoglyphs – designs etched into the ground – created by the ancient Nazca culture about 2,000 years ago.  Given the enormity of their size, some designs go for about 30 miles while others range from 50 to 1200 feet in length (which is as large as the Empire State Building in NYC!), the Nazca Lines are best appreciated from the air.

The Huari culture, active about 500 – 1000 AD, is said to have been the first culture to use military force to conquer surrounding civilizations and in turn, dominated much of the Peruvian highlands and coast. Their capital was situated about 25 kilometers from what is now the modern-day city of Ayacucho, with parts of a rounded city that can still be seen.  The precise cause of the Huari decline is still not known, but theories range from an over extension of their empire to an extended drought. Nonetheless, their artistic style greatly influenced succeeding cultures, including the Incas. Many of the roads built by the Huari were also later used by the Incas incorporated into their own vast network of roads as well as a number of the Huari terraces used for agriculture.

Living at about the same time and at its peak from about 500 – 900 AD was the Tiahuanco culture.  Monuments still existing today point to the great cultural and political significance of this people with many researchers concluding the Tiahuanco culture was quite important and quite large, stretching from the Peruvian coast to northern Bolivia and parts of Chile.  Their livelihood was based primarily on fishing, since they bordered Lake Titicaca, as well as agriculture, cultivating crops such as potatoes, beans, maize and quinoa and herding, with llamas, used as pack animals, and alpacas, appreciated for their fur, also playing a key role. Living at high altitudes and the resultant unpredictable weather, they devised techniques for freeze drying potatoes and sun-drying meats.  It is said the Tiahuanco agriculture, sculpture, roads and societal management also had an influence on the Inca civilization.

Chan Chan: the biggest clay city.

Pyramids of Tucume: Detailed Walls

El Brujo Temple: ceremonial murals built by the Moche culture.

Machu Picchu: the jewel of Peruvian archeology.

2 – The Inca Empire

Around the 13thcentury, the Inca Empire came to be. This was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America and at its height, it was centered in Peru and spread out to what are now parts of the countries of Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Argentina.  The Inca civilization, while short lived, lasting about 200 years, was wealthy and well-organized with sophisticated networks of roads and water systems as well as accomplished spectacular feats of engineering.  One such achievement are the stone temples they built, which used no mortar in the construction, with stones sculpted to precisely fit exactly together, standing the test of time, even surviving earthquakes.  To imagine how they moved these enormous boulders from place to place and made these massive constructions is awesome.  The Inca also utilized the terraced agriculture system and cultivated more than 70 different types of crops. The main ones were potatoes (about 200 varieties!), maize, they were very adept here, too, developing many new varieties, and quinoa as well as chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, avocado, chirimoya, lucuma along with cotton.  They also had a policy of growing more food than they needed to weather the lean times and established vast storage systems for food.  Other riches of the Inca Empire included finely woven textiles of Alpaca and Vicuna, and perhaps most notably was their fondness for gold and silver, which they had in abundance and used to mega degrees for decorating their temples and palaces, ornaments and for personal jewelry.

So many grand Incan sites remain today in Cusco, which was their capital, and throughout the Sacred Valley, including recent discoveries in Choquequirao, Ollantaytambo and of course, Machu Picchu.

3 -The Viceroyalty of Peru

Lured by the stories of Inca wealth, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his men made their way to the borders of the Inca Empire in 1532.  Towards the end of that year, the Inca Emperor Atahualpa was captured by the Spaniards.  The Inca soldiers put up quite a fight in the following years against the advanced weapons, armor and horses of their invaders, but between that and with other Incan rivals piling on, it was a Spanish victory.

Pizarro founded the city of Lima as the capital of the newly conquered territories in 1535. In 1542, Spain created the Viceroyalty of Peru, which comprised most of South America, except for Brazil. Peru was considered the most valuable Spanish possession in the Americas due to the large quantities of silver and gold produced there and Peru would continue to be one of Spain’s most profitable colonies for hundreds of years to follow. Though at that time, Peruvian silver became so plentiful that it resulted in massive inflation in Europe and a collapse in its price.  The National University of San Marcos was established in 1551, making it the first University in the Americas.  Still in existence today, it ranks in the top 2 universities in the country and counts more than 30,000 undergraduates and 4,000 graduates with an esteemed list of alumni, including internationally recognized writer and Noble Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Blasco Núñez de Vela: first Viceroy of Peru.

Balcon de Huaura: where Peruvian independence was declared.


4 – The Republican Era

Escalating battles started to break out in 1811 resulting in the proclamation of independence of Peru, declared on July 28, 1821 by General José de San Martín. Though it was achieved years later under the command of the prodigious military leader, Simón Bolívar, after thedefeat of the larger Spanish army in a final battle in December of 1824.

Despite much of the 1800s being peppered with sporadic years of fighting with its neighbors over territorial disputes and internal turmoils, there were numerous accomplishments along the way in Peru. General Ramon Castilla assumed the presidency in 1845 and instituted social reforms, abolished slavery as well as the construction of the first railway system and the development of different exports that then played an important role in improving Peru’s economy going into the 20thcentury.  Other noteworthy successes during this period included improvements in communications and the building of major bridges.

5 – The 20th Century and the Present

At the turn of the century and into the early years of the 20thcentury, Peru enjoyed a period of accelerated economic development. There was an increase in production of minerals, most notably copper as well other key exports gaining in importance, including sugar from the coast and rubber from the jungle, guano, among others. With this, foreign investment increased rapidly resulting in a great modernization of Lima, with the construction of big avenues connecting different areas, updated parks, plazas and more.

Peruvian exports continued to grow, with various sectors gaining importance. Between 1930 to 1950, cotton exports took on a significant role as did alpaca.   During the 1950s, Peru became the number one producer of fishmeal in the world.

The first census with relevant socio-economic information was done in 1940, revealing that the population of Peru was 7 million people, growing to 17 million in 1981 and then most recently, 32 million in 2017. An overall increase of 4.5 times in almost 80 years.

Peru’s GDP increased from US $ 57 billion 20 years ago to more than US $ 211 billion during 2017. Its overall exports grew from US $ 6.8 million in 1997 to US $ 44.9 million in 2017.

Culturally, one of the most significant happenings was the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 by the American archeologist, Hiram Bingham. With the news of this historic site spreading, hordes of tourists traveled to Peru to hike the Inca trail over the ensuing decades and still today, making tourism another important sector in the Peruvian economy.

The city of Lima, with nearly 10 million inhabitants, has become one of the most influential business centers in all of South America, as well as playing a key role on the global gastronomy stage, with 3 restaurants in Lima holding top spots year after year on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Larcomar: Miraflores shopping center.

San Isidro: Lima’s financial district view from above.