Before coming to Peru, my limited knowledge of it’s ancient history pretty much began and ended with the Incas. I knew that before the Inca way of life was all but destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in 1532, their reach extended some 2,50o miles. It went all the way from present day Ecuador south to Chile. The empire expanded quickly; some estimates claim that its reach spread from it’s capital city of Cusco to its largest reach in under 100 years. After finding that out, I wondered,
How the hell did they do that so quickly?
Turns out that visiting Pachacamac, an ancient Peruvian ruin that predates the Inca civilization by over 1,000 years, is a great way to find the answer to that question.
Walking around the ruins, listening to our guide, I learned a few things.
During the period of Inca expansion, a lot of things happened very quickly and all at the same time: 1) Roads were built to connect the new territory to the existing Inca population. 2) The Inca military counted everything in the newly conquered territory; they wanted to know what was of value that they could claim. 3) An Inca governor was appointed to rule over the territory. 4) Many of the people in the new territory were forced to relocate to an existing part of the Inca empire.
These displaced people were forced to learn Quechuan (the Inca language) and pray to the Inca god, Viracocha, BUT the newly conquered regions were sometimes allowed to continue praying to their own gods as long as their reverence didn’t get in the way of their work or honoring the Inca gods. Because of this tolerance not only were the conquered people a bit more accepting of their new rulers, but the pantheon of Inca gods grew.
Pachacamac Time Line
Archeological evidence suggests that Pacacamac, the archeological site, has been occupied by four different cultures. The initial building was done around 200 AD by the Lima. The Wari took over the site around 650 AD. They are likely the ones that named the site because Pacha Kamaq was a very important god for the Wari, along with many other pre-Inca peoples. He was known as an earth god and for those who spoke Quechuan, he was the creator of the world. Ancient Peruvians believed that one shake of his head could cause an earthquake. Even the high priests walked into the temples backwards out of fear. The Wari used the site for ceremonial purposes as well as for commerce and trade.
Around 1200 AD, the Ichma culture gained control of the site. Fifteen more temples and stepped pyramids were built. Stepped pyramids were for commercial activities. Some of the structures were thought to house visitors who made pilgrimages to worship Pacha Kamaq. Sort of like an ancient VRBO. Temples were used for ceremonial purposes. The ritual sacrifice of animals and food became common place.
Which brings us, chronologically, to the Incas. As their expansion accelerated, they invaded the site around 1470 AD. As they had done with many other conquered cultures, they allowed the cult of Pachacamac to continue. Strangely, they gave them even more leeway than the other cultures they conquered. It is quite possible that the belief system in Pacha Kamaq was so strong, that they were afraid to mess with it too much.
Regardless, they also built extensively onto the existing structures of Pachacamac. Most notably, they built the Temple of the Sun. The Incas also practiced ritual sacrifice, and this was the temple was where they performed it. On the solstice, a 14 year old girl from a well-off family would be sacrificed to the sun god, Viracocha.
The trip to Peru has been deeply rewarding on many levels. Not only am I getting to learn about how a system of education plays out from the “top down”, but I am also getting exposed to a treasure of cultural sites and experiences. Going to Pachacmac is so much more powerful then reading about it in a book. While book learning gives context, standing at the site really resonated with me. I was able to develop a much better understanding of how the Inca were able to expand their reach so quickly. They didn’t simply destroy people that they conquered. They attempted to assimilate them. They adopted some of the habits and practices of these people. The cult of Pacha Kamaq could have been snuffed out which probably would have resulted in a lot of turmoil and strife. Smart move, Incas.
Standing at the site, it was easy to imagine what was happening centuries ago. Businessmen selling their wares at the top of the pyramids. Religious pilgrims staying in secluded rooms waiting for a chance to pay homage to their god. Horrible happenings at the Temple of the Sun.
Maybe it’s just me, but it’s awfully hard for me to visualize all of that from behind a computer screen.
Yeah for IRL experiences. (Ask a gen Z.)