Pre-Inca Cultures of Northern Peru
The first cultural site Miro and I saw upon arriving in Peru was the Chimu site of Chan Chan, located in Trujillo. Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian city in Peru, covering about 20 sq km, and is estimated to have housed about 50,000 people. Prior to arriving in Peru, we had only heard of the Incas as the indigenous people of Peru, and had no idea that many other cultures flourished throughout Peru before the Incas.
The city of Chan Chan, capital of the Kingdom of Chimor, also known as the Chimu Empire, represents America’s largest prehispanic mud-brick settlement. Today the dusty city looks like a maze, reminding me of a labyrinth. Chan Chan covers 7.7 square miles and is centered on a 2.3 square mile urban core dominated by a series of huge enclosures – the palaces of the Chimu kings.
Miro and I were part of a formal tour, and learned much about the history of this ancient city. But once the tour headed into the maze of adobe walls, Miro and I ducked the other way to explore the site ourselves. Feeling a little naughty and equally adventurous, we crossed over a few of the pathways that were roped off. After exploring for about 15 minutes, we came upon an area where they were freshly excavating, and we found this very interesting.
The archaeological site is characterized by very tall walls, some of which are 26 feet high, which enclose each of the 11 citadels. Together with Huaca Obispo, Chan Chan’s largest stepped pyramid, which lies at the north of the city, they form the bulk of the monumental architecture at the site. Each of these palaces, most of which are laid out in a very similar fashion in spite of the differences in size, are characterized by three types of structures: U-shaped audiencias, storerooms and wells. In general terms the site’s high walls, long corridors, tortuous, winding passageways, and small entrances show how meticulously the regime controlled the flow of people within the enclosures.
The U-shaped rooms called “audiencias” are found in varying sizes and are interpreted as the administrative offices of the Chimu elite. Some are decorated with elaborate clay friezes that represent shellfish, stylized waves, marine birds and fish. On frieze, for example, represents a reed boat adorned with a cormorant and a giant squid about to gobble a fish.