Peruvian Civilization

(This is taken from John D. Baldwin's Ancient America, originally published in 1871.)

The development of civilization in Peru was very different from that in Mexico and Central America. In both regions the people were sun-worshipers, but their religious organizations, as well as their methods of building temples, were unlike. Neither of these peoples seems to have borrowed from the other. It may be that all the old American civilizations had a common origin in South America, and that all the ancient Americans whose civilization can be traced in remains found north of the Isthmus came originally from that part of the continent. This hypothesis appears to me more probable than any other I have heard suggested. But, assuming this to be true, the first migration of civilized people from South America must have taken place at a very distant period in the past, for it preceded not only the history indicated by the existing antiquities, but also an earlier history, during which the Peruvians and Central Americans grew to be as different from their ancestors as from each other. In each case, the development of civilization represented by existing monuments, so far as we can study it, appears to have been original.

In some respects the Peruvian civilization was developed to such a degree as challenged admiration. The Peruvians were highly skilled in agriculture and in some kinds of manufactures. No people ever had a more efficient system of industry. This created their wealth and made possible their great public works. All accounts of the country at the time of the Conquest agree in the statement that they cultivated the soil in a very admirable way and with remarkable success, using aqueducts for irrigation, and employing guano as one of their most important fertilizers. Europeans learned from them the value of this fertilizer, and its name, guano, is Peruvian. The remains of their works show what they were as builders. Their skill in cutting stone and their wonderful masonry can be seen and admired by modern builders in what is left of their aqueducts, their roads, their temples, and their other great edifices.

They had great proficiency in the arts of spinning, weaving, and dyeing. For their cloth they used cotton and the wool of four varieties of the llama, that of the vicuña being the finest. Some of their cloth had interwoven designs and ornaments very skillfully executed. Many of their fabrics had rare excellence in the eyes of the Spaniards. Garcilasso says, “The coverings of the beds were blankets and friezes of the wool of the vicuña, which is so fine and so much prized that, among other precious things from that land, they have been brought for the bed of Don Philip II.” Of their dyes, this account is given in the work of Rivero and Von Tschudi:

“They possessed the secret of fixing the dye of all colors, flesh-color, yellow, gray, blue, green, black, etc., so firmly in the thread, or in the cloth already woven, that they never faded during the lapse of ages, even when exposed to the air or buried (in tombs) under ground. Only the cotton became slightly discolored, while the woolen fabrics preserved their primitive lustre. It is a circumstance worth remarking that chemical analyses made of pieces of cloth of all the different dyes prove that the Peruvians extracted all their colors from the vegetable and none from the mineral kingdom. In fact, the natives of the Peruvian mountains now use plants unknown to Europeans, producing from them bright and lasting colors.”

They had great skill in the art of working metals, especially gold and silver. Besides these precious metals, they had copper, tin, lead, and quicksilver. Iron was unknown to them in the time of the Incas, although some maintain that they had it in the previous ages, to which belong the ruins at Lake Titicaca. Iron ore was and still is very abundant in Peru. It is impossible to conceive how the Peruvians were able to cut and work stone in such a masterly way, or to construct their great roads and aqueducts without the use of iron tools. Some of the languages of the country, and perhaps all, had names for iron; in official Peruvian it was called quillay, and in the old Chilian tongue panilic. “It is remarkable,” observes Molina, “that iron, which has been thought unknown to the ancient Americans, has particular names in some of their tongues.” It is not easy to understand why they had names for this metal, if they never at any time had knowledge of the metal itself. In the Mercurio Peruano, tome i., p. 201, 1791, it is stated that, anciently, the Peruvian sovereigns “worked magnificent iron mines at Ancoriames, on the west shore of Lake Titicaca;” but I can not give the evidence used in support of this statement.

Their goldsmiths and silversmiths had attained very great proficiency. They could melt the metals in furnaces, cast them in moulds made of clay and gypsum, hammer their work with remarkable dexterity, inlay it, and solder it with great perfection. The gold and silver work of these artists was extremely abundant in the country at the time of the Conquest, but Spanish greed had it all melted for coinage. It was with articles of this gold-work that the Inca Atahuallpa filled a room in his vain endeavor to purchase release from captivity. One of the old chroniclers mentions “statuary, jars, vases, and every species of vessels, all of fine gold.” Describing one of the palaces, he said: “They had an artificial garden, the soil of which was made of small pieces of fine gold, and this was artificially sowed with different kinds of maize which were of gold, their stems, leaves, and ears. Besides this, they had more than twenty sheep (llamas), with their lambs, attended by shepherds, all made of gold.” This may be the same artificial garden which was mentioned by Francisco Lopez de Gomara, who places it on “an island near Puna.” Similar gardens of gold are mentioned by others. It is believed that a large quantity of Peruvian gold-work was thrown into Lake Titicaca to keep it from the Spanish robbers. In a description of one lot of golden articles sent to Spain in 1534 by Pizarro, there is mention of “four llamas, ten statues of women of full size, and a cistern of gold so curious that it incited the wonder of all.”

Nothing is more constantly mentioned by the old Spanish chroniclers than the vast abundance of gold in Peru. It was more common than any other metal. Temples and palaces were covered with it, and it was very beautifully wrought into ornaments, temple furniture, articles for household use, and imitations of almost every object in nature. In the course of twenty-five years after the Conquest, the Spaniards sent from Peru to Spain more than four hundred million ducats (800,000,000 dollars) worth of gold, all or nearly all of it having been taken from the subjugated Peruvians as “booty.”

The most perfectly manufactured articles of Peruvian pottery were used in the tombs. Some of those made for other uses were very curious. A considerable number of articles made for common use have been preserved. Mariano Rivero, a Peruvian, says: “At this day there exist in many houses pitchers, large jars, and earthen pots of this manufacture, which are preferred for their solidity to those manufactured by our own potters.” The ancient Peruvians were inferior to the Central Americans in the arts of ornamentation and sculpture.

Science among the Peruvians was not very highly developed, but engineering skill of some kind is indicated by the great roads and aqueducts. Their knowledge of the art of preparing colors and certain useful medicines implied a study of plants. Their progress in astronomy was not equal to that found in Central America; nevertheless, they had an accurate measure of the solar year, but, unlike the Central Americans, they divided the year into twelve months, and they used mechanical contrivances successfully to fix the times of the solstices and equinoxes. A class of men called amautas was trained to preserve and teach whatever knowledge existed in the country. It was their business to understand the quippus, keep in memory the historical poems, give attention to the science and practice of medicine, and train their pupils in knowledge. These were not priests; they were the “learned men” of Peru, and the government allowed them every facility for study and for communicating instruction. How much they knew of astronomy it is not easy to say. They had knowledge of some of the planets, and it is claimed that there is some reason to believe they used aids to eyesight in studying the heavens, such as some suppose were used by our Mound-Builders. A discovery made in Bolivia a few years since is cited in support of this belief. It is the figure of a man in the act of using a tube to aid vision, which was taken from an ancient tomb. Mr. David Forbes, an English chemist and geologist, obtained it in Bolivia, and carried it to England in 1864. William Bollaert describes it as follows in a paper read to the London Anthropological Society:

“It is a nude figure, of silver, two inches and a half in height, on a flat, pointed pedestal. In the right hand it has the mask of a human face, but in the left a tube over half an inch in length, the narrow part placed to the left eye in a diagonal position, as if observing some celestial object. This is the first specimen of a figure in the act of looking through a hollow tube directed to the heavens that has been found in the New World. We can not suppose the Peruvians had any thing that more nearly resembled a telescope. It was found in a chulpa, or ancient Indian tomb, at Caquingora, near Corocoro (lat. 17° 15' S., and long. 68° 35' W.), in Bolivia.” He forgets the astronomical monument described by Captain Dupaix.

The art of writing in alphabetical characters, so far as appears, was unknown to the Peruvians in the time of the Incas. No Peruvian books existed at that time, and no inscriptions have been found in any of the ruins. They had a method of recording events, keeping accounts, and making reports to the government by means of the quippu. This was made of cords of twisted wool fastened to a base prepared for the purpose. These cords were of various sizes and colors, and every size and color had its meaning. The record was made by means of an elaborate system of knots and artificial intertwinings. The amautas were carefully educated to the business of understanding and using the quippus, and “this science was so much perfected that those skilled in it attained the art of recording historical events, laws, and decrees, so as to transmit to their descendants the most striking events of the empire; thus the quippus could supply the place of documents.” Each quippu was a book full of information for those who could read it.

Among the amautas memory was educated to retain and transmit to posterity songs, historical narratives, and long historical poems. It is said, also, that tragedies and comedies were composed and preserved in this way, and that dramatic performances were among the regular entertainments encouraged and supported by the Incas. Whether the art of writing ever existed in the country can not now be determined. Some of the Peruvian tongues had names for paper; the people knew that a kind of paper or parchment could be made of plantain leaves, and, according to Montesinos, writing and books were common in the older times, that is to say, in ages long previous to the Incas. He explains how the art was lost, as I shall presently show.

It is not improbable that a kind of hieroglyphical writing existed in some of the Peruvian communities, especially among the Aymaraes. Humboldt mentions books of hieroglyphical writing found among the Panoes, on the River Ucayali, which were “bundles of their paper resembling our volumes in quarto.” A Franciscan missionary found an old man sitting at the foot of a palm-tree and reading one of these books to several young persons. The Franciscan was told that the writing “contained hidden things which no stranger ought to know.” It was seen that the pages of the book were “covered with figures of men, animals, and isolated characters, deemed hieroglyphical, and arranged in lines with order and symmetry.” The Panoes said these books “were transmitted to them by their ancestors, and had relation to wanderings and ancient wars.” There is similar writing on a prepared llama skin found among other antiquities on a peninsula in Lake Titicaca, which is now in the museum at La Paz, Bolivia. It appears to be a record of atrocities perpetrated by the Spaniards at the time of the Conquest, and shows that some of the Aymaraes could at that time write hieroglyphics.

Peruvian vase



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