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Ancient Peru

Ancient Peru's Power Elite

The dead are beginning to tell tales at Pachacamac, a sprawl of ruins and graves near Lima, Peru.

First settled around
A.D. 200, Pachacamac became one of the longest continuously inhabited urban centers in the Andes, enduring and even thriving under various cultures for some 1,300 years. Named for the creator god Pachacamac, the site drew pilgrims who came to worship and to bury their dead. Overtaken by the Inca around 1470, it was one of the most sacred places in their empire until the Spanish conquest in the 1530s.
When archaeologists began exploring the site in the 1890s they found a vast complex of monumental buildings and looted burials. At its heart lies an enigma: 18 mud-brick stepped pyramids with ramps and plazas. In 1993 I began the first comprehensive excavation of one of these structures, which dates from the late 1300s to mid-1400s. After more than a decade of digging I've found evidence that is shining new light on the meaning of the pyramids—and overturning old assumptions.
For decades most scholars thought the pyramids were religious "embassies" that housed delegations from far-off communities who came to worship, bring tribute, and make offerings to Pachacamac. I expected to find evidence supporting this theory: ornate building designs suggesting religious use, the remains of plentiful offerings, nonlocal artifacts, and signs that the pyramids were occupied simultaneously by groups from across Peru and beyond.
Instead, my team and those who had previously dug at two other pyramids have uncovered buildings that in their layout and lack of adornment resemble secular Andean palaces rather than religious centers. Rooms held the remains of textiles and guinea pigs (a common food), suggesting domestic chores such as weaving and raising animals. We found few nonlocal artifacts. And the offerings we discovered (including a human baby) were clearly placed in the pyramids at the time of their construction or ritual abandonment. At that point the floors were covered with a fine layer of sand, and selected chambers were filled with mummies and riches, then sealed off. Most important, radiocarbon dating suggests that the pyramids were not occupied at the same time, as embassies would have been, but one after another in successive periods of about 30 years—the average length of a ruler's reign.
I can only conclude that the pyramids were palaces of the Ychsma (EESH-MA
) lords who ruled Pachacamac and some of its surroundings during what archaeologists call the Late Intermediate Period (A.D. 900 to 1470). At each lord's death he would have been buried with his spouse, concubines, and servants, his palace turned into a tomb where his mummy could be worshipped. His successor then built a new palace nearby.
Historical records support this conclusion. The chronicler Blas Valera reported just such a tradition in the 1580s, likely a remnant of earlier, pre-Inca customs: "After the death of the king or lord . . . they would place the deceased in a bedroom or chamber ready-made for him . . . and wall up the door and windows. . . . The halls, portals, wings, and other rooms . . . were kept open so that [people] could enter and pray."
The idea that the pyramids were palaces matches a model developed independently by archaeologist William Isbell for the pre-Inca sites of Huari and Conchopata in the central highlands of Peru. Still, this interpretation remains controversial. The widely held embassy theory often has been used to explain the rise of monumental sites all over the Andes as religious centers ruled by priests. If excavations at Pachacamac show that its core was filled not with religious monuments but with the seats of secular rulers, then power in ancient Peru may have been shared by lords and priests to a far greater degree than was previously thought.
Peru's preliterate peoples cannot speak to us directly. But they've left tangible clues to their civilizations. It's up to us to listen to their voices.
—Peter Eeckhout
Did You Know?
Less than a hundred years after the Inca took over Pachacamac, the great monumental center met its demise. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1532 and took the Inca ruler Atahualpa prisoner. Pizarro soon heard about the riches at Pachacamac and in 1533 sent an expedition led by his brother, Hernando, to sack the site and the surrounding area. The Spanish conquerors made off with large amounts of silver and gold and destroyed the idol that served as oracle for the pilgrimage center. Pachacamac never recovered its former importance and soon faded away.
Today the archaeological site faces a new threat: urban development. The population of Lima, the capital of Peru, has exploded from less than 650,000 in 1950 to more than eight million today: Nearly a third of Peru's total population lives in or near the city, many in squatter settlements. Nearby Pachacamac has felt the strain. Peruvian authorities struggle to keep the site clear of would-be settlers and encroaching neighbors, who regularly use it as a sand pit for construction purposes and a garbage dump. The situation, says archaeologist Peter Eeckhout of the Free University of Brussels, is "very sad indeed." Efforts to place Pachacamac on the UNESCO World Heritage List have been stalled by disputes over the site's official limits. Eeckhout would like to see the matter resolved, "ensuring the long-term preservation" of Pachacamac and allowing future generations a chance to better understand the rich heritage of the ancient peoples who thrived there.
—Kathy B. Maher

Web Links

Ychsma Project
Learn more about Peter Eeckhout's work at Pachacamac at this website, sponsored by the Archaeological Research Center at the Free University of Brussels.
Pachacamac Archaeological Site
Interested in seeing the complex for yourself? The website of the museum at
Pachacamac provides helpful information to the hopeful visitor (Spanish only).
Lima—City of Kings
Founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima is home to more than 50 museums and scores of colonial buildings and archaeological sites. The curious traveler will find valuable travel tips at this website.

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Eeckhout, Peter. "The Palaces of the Lords of Ychsma: An Archaeological Reappraisal of the Function of Pyramids With Ramps at Pachacamac, Central Coast of Peru." Journal of American Archaeology (July 1999-December 2000), 217-54.
Hyland, Sabine. The Jesuit and the Incas: The Extraordinary Life of Padre Blas Valera, S. J. University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru. Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Shimada, Izumi. "Late Prehispanic Coastal States." In The Inca World: The Development of Pre-Columbian Peru, A.D. 1000-1534, ed. Laura Laurencich Minelli. University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
Von Hagen, Adriana, and Craig Morris. Cities of the Ancient Andes. Thames and Hudson, 1998.


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