On the Spontaneous Origin and Evolution of Societies, Civilizations or Cultures:


Example:  Peru and Ecuador


by  Helmut Schwab, Princeton, 2006

Update 5-16-06


Click on “Download” to obtain the entire essay in Microsoft Word for easy print-out


In discussing groups of people who, in the course of history, reached a high level of sophistication or accomplishments, three distinct terms are commonly being used:  “society”, “civilization”, and “culture”.  The definitions of these terms are fuzzy.  Not only are the numeric limits unclear, but also the coverage of the terms is variable, sometimes being seen differently by academic specialists and common people in daily conversation.  Can a single nomadic family in an isolated oasis constitute a society or culture – as a large, extended tribe or nation could?  Were the ancient Romans (as compared to the Greeks) a culture or just a civilization?




-        Webster:  “A body of persons united for the promotion of some object – the more cultivated portion of any community in its social relations and influences.”

-        Duden:  “Gesellschaft = Sum of people who live together under certain political, economic, or social conditions”.

-        Larousse:  “Société = Equal to the concepts of community, social gathering.  Each family forms a natural society”.

-        Common usage:  “A somewhat organized or structured, large group of people, distinct from other such groups”.



-        Webster:  “The state of being refined in manners from the rudeness of savage life, and improved in arts and learning”.   

-        Duden:  “The totality of the accomplished or improved social and material conditions of life by means of technical or scientific progress”.

-        Larousse: “Civilization”.

-        Common usage:  “The organizational, behavioral, and technical accomplishments of a society”



-        Webster:  “Improvement by mental or physical training, education, refinement – the way of life of people”.

-        Duden:  “The totality of the mental, artistic, and formative accomplishments of a society as the expression of human upward evolution”.

-        Larousse:  “Cultivation of the arts and sciences, mental improvement”.

-        Common usage:  “Emphasis on the philosophical, religious, and artistic accomplishments, of a society, but also including its organizational, behavioral, and technical accomplishments (civilization)”.


For reasons of simplicity, the following essay will use only the term “culture” when discussing the genesis – or origin – and the evolution on the west coast of Peru of the societal, political, artistic, and behavioral accomplishments occurring some two to three thousand years ago among a certain group of people – the Chiva, the Moche, and the Chimu – later the Wari and the Incas.


Only in very few places on Earth did high cultures originate spontaneously and independently of others – as in Mesopotamia, possibly in India (actually, possibly there in two locations, one on the Indus – why was none found on the Ganges? – and another one south of the Deccan Traps among the Tamil – unless a very early trading link utilizing the Monsoon Winds provided a connection and influence from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley and beyond), possibly in China (unless a very early Silk Road had a connecting effect with the Middle East via Hotan and down the Tarim River or via Turpan), and, specifically, in Central America (the Olmec, the Maya and numerous other ones before and afterwards in the same area) – but nowhere else(?). 


The northern Peruvian slopes to the west of the Andes and the related coast (combined with a part of southern Ecuador) appear to have formed an additional such cultural genesis area, having brought forth, first, the “Initial Period” cultures north of today’s Lima, then the seminal Chavin, from there the important Moche, later, in their place, the Chimu, and, in the highlands, the empire of the Wari, followed by the Incas.  Why there?  How did it happen?  What is equal and what is different in the early Peruvian cultures from the origin and evolution of other cultures?


The subject area of cultural origin reaches from the Nazca region, south of today’s Lima, via Pachacamac (now at the southern edge of Lima) to the area around today’s Trujillo, Chiclayo, and a few small towns in Ecuador.  The core area is about 400 miles in length – but about 2,000 miles by land (in those days, mostly impassable jungle and mountains) from the nearest of the early high cultures of Central America, first the Olmec (flourishing from 1150 to 500 or 800 BC in the area from southern Mexico to El Salvador) and, later, the Maya (beginning settlements in 1500 BC but flourishing from 200 AD to 900 AD or, in the highlands, a few centuries longer in the area from southern Mexico to Belize).


There are a number of contradictory academic theories and numerous individual indications to be found in the museums of the area, in numerous books written since the arrival of the Spaniards in 1532, and in various articles.  But the Peruvian cultures themselves did not have any written records and their verbal histories were suppressed or lost in later centuries.  Archeology has to make sense of silent ruins, the findings of dispersed objects, and geology.


The subject area consists of a flat, mostly sandy, coastal strip in the west of Peru along the Pacific Ocean, limited on its eastern side by the double chain of the high Andes.  Beyond those very high mountains are the lowland jungles of the Amazon River watershed.  In ancient and very distant geological times, the coastal strip was occasionally flooded by a high water level of the ocean or was somewhat elevated above it, as ice ages came and went, and as plate tectonic movements occurred.  Occasionally, gigantic tsunamis caused by this geologically active area raced over the coastal plains, as evidenced by recent shells in the sands far inland from the coast. 


In the ocean, the cold Humboldt Current flows along the shore from Antarctica to southern Ecuador, where it meets the warm Niño current arriving from the north.  The combined waters flow off along the equator to the west, further replenished by a strong sub-oceanic current, which wells up in that area of northern Peru and southern Ecuador.  Consequently, the coastal plains of northern Peru receive practically no rain, remaining harsh deserts, with all the atmospheric water being deposited on the Andes as seasonal rain or snow, feeding immense glaciers in the highest areas just east of this coast, as in the Sierra Blanca of Peru.  Melt-waters run down from there through the coastal desert to the ocean all year long, due to proximity to the equator, by way of variously spaced rivers.  Off-shore, the ocean produces a very high abundance of seafood on account of the various currents and the nutrient supply from the depths.  


When primitive men arrived, simple, stone-age settlements appeared on the rivers, separated by wide areas of intervening desert.  Cultural development was slow.  From 2500 BC on, some simple pottery, some cotton cultivation, and simple (not woven) textile production can be proven to have existed during that period, but those people were basically hunters and gatherers.


It is assumed by some scientists that the Amazon basin, directly after the last ice age, some 15,000 years ago, was not a jungle but rather a steppe or savannah, beginning to be populated by early human immigrants.  It is further believed that those Amazonians developed cultivation of food plants (manioc) and, accidentally, discovered the production of pottery by cooking in the clay soil of that area.  Some anthropologists are still looking – so far in vain – for significant settlements – possibly early cultures – from that period somewhere in what is now the Amazon rain forest.  It is also assumed that very early trade occurred between the Amazon area, the Andean mountain tribes, and down to the coast – for decorative feathers, precious stones, later gold, and, possibly, hallucinatory herbs in one direction; and coral or decorative shells, later also manufactured products in the other (as in North America carried out by the Hopi tribe from the Gulf all the way to tribes inland, as to the Zuni and far beyond).


But an important cultural step took place in the so-called Initial Period after 1800 BC (in other words, possibly earlier than the rise of the Olmec) in the area north of today’s Lima (as far north as the Moche River), as at Paraíso, Aspero, Moxece-Pampa (with a 27-meter-high, beautifully decorated mound and another one only 6 meters high, but 135 by 135 meters wide), and Sechín, where large populations must have lived together in structured cultures.  These large cultures became possible on the foundation of irrigation and the large-scale cultivation of nourishing plants – initially including squash, beans, peanuts, and avocado – supplemented by seafood.  Maize (corn) arrived later.  


Earlier assumptions had indicated that one tribe, the Chavin, existing between 1000 and 300 BC on the west side of the Cordillera Blanca of the Andes, had come up with irrigation by diversion of running mountain water to their small, sloping fields.  The Chavin also domesticated the llama, cultivated potatoes, developed refined weaving techniques, molded pottery, and advanced metal melting and fabrication processes, leading later to the famous pre-Columbian pottery and gold jewelry of the Moche, Chimu, and Incas. 


Newer assumptions and the results of newer archeology indicate that the technology of irrigation was already common in the Initial Period shortly after 1800 among the Paraíso, Aspero, Moxece, and Sechín cultures before the arrival of the Chavin about 1000 BC and may have been derived from another Andean source, possibly even from the more mountainous original home area of one of those tribes.


Once the art of irrigation was transferred to the coastal lowlands, the cultivation of maize had arrived, and the Chavin arts and crafts transferred, either by learning or by Chavin migration, the Moche culture appeared.  In parallel, the Nazca culture was centered around the ancient agricultural, artistic and trading city of Paracas (110 miles south of today’s Lima).  The Nazca lines, not repeated or copied by any other early Peruvian culture, remain a mystery.  Together, the Moche and the Nazca evolved as the most important early Peruvian cultures, from 300 BC to about 600 AD.  Maize became the richest and most widely cultivated carbohydrate food source.  Maize, as proposed by some anthropologists in Ecuador, arrived from somewhere in the North, possibly by trade conducted by early inhabitants of the Ecuadorian coast, who took advantage of seasonal winds and seasonal shifts of ocean currents for sailing by rafts (the precursors of the rafts lately used by Thor Heyerdahl and his son to reach Polynesia from Ecuador).  In any event, the cultivation of maize on large, irrigated fields in the lowlands on either side of those rivers provided an abundant carbohydrate food supply, augmented by protein food available from easy fishing within a short distance from the shore – from primitive reed boats (still observable at this time, as at Huanchaco close to Chan Chan!). 


The subsequent, significant population growth and the need for the organization of ever larger irrigation projects led to the need for orderly behavior of many people in close social proximity, and thus to social order or stratification – evolving from family hierarchy to tribal structure and beyond.  Increasing wealth and concentration of demand led to diversification of occupations in accordance with skills and opportunities – in other words, to civilizations or cultures, especially when an increasing amount of resources and skills went into artistic endeavors and when organized religion, elitist luxury, warfare, and trade developed.  It is astounding how the habitation and decorative possessions of rulers and elites in the early Peruvian cultures – as found in their tombs – elevated them far above the general population.


The separation of the proto-cultures along the rivers by large stretches of desert may have been an important factor in facilitating the rise of early societies, protecting them during their “incubation” period from constant invasions, raiding, and looting by envious neighbors – as had commonly occurred in the North American plains and still recently in the Amazon jungle.


Why were large mounds (or pyramids) built by the early Peruvian cultures?  When no caves are available in the lowlands, shelter, as any camper knows from practical experience, may have to be created in the ground for protection against the wind.  Housing, more often, may also have to be created on platforms to avoid the occasional flowing water from rains and the access of all kinds of crawling animals to the living quarters.  


Rank has always been associated with elevation.  Wealthier people preferred living on higher platforms than lower people.  Holy places and sacrificial fires were preferably established by most cultures on elevated places – spirituality being associated with the sky and morbidity with the earth below.  In any event, through the centuries, early Peruvian cultures began building high mounds, called “Huacas”, mostly provided with external ramps leading to platforms on top for religious rituals or for the ceremonial location of the political or religious rulers of society.  Every generation or every wave of material or military success led to additions to the mounds, augmenting their elevation.  Since rocks were not available in the desert plains, mounds were built of adobe brick from mud being washed down in the rivers from the Andes (including volcanic ash and geological sediments).  The building of ever larger and more decorated Huacas out of millions of bricks, impressive and beautiful as they were, can only be called a craze – which absorbed enormous resources in labor and artistic effort for decorative reliefs, their painting, and the treasures that were buried together with each passing political ruler.


The cultural or social genesis in the early Peruvian cultures and the Moche culture was actually quite similar to the Sumerian one, including the interplay of the innovations of mountain tribes and lowland population growth (irrigation supposedly having been introduced into Mesopotamia by conquering tribes from the Zagros Mountains occupying the lower Euphrates plains), the formation of elites, the building of mounds (or pyramids), and the appearance of decorative reliefs on buildings, and more.  The craze for building large Huacas can also be compared to the building of the pyramids in Central America, the pyramids in Egypt, the numerous temples of wealthy cities in the Greek world (see Agrigent and Selinunt on Sicily), and the building of ever larger and taller churches or cathedrals in every settlement of Europe in the Middle Ages.


In a difference between the Peruvian cultures and the Middle Eastern, European, and, later, Muslim ones, the duality of, and conflict between, political rulers and high priests did not occur in the Peruvian cultures.  Sophisticated rules for social order were developed, basically not very different from the Ten Commandments – even going beyond them – but it is not known whether any of them were based on “divine” revelations as were the Ten Commandments, Christianity, or Islam.  In Peru, they were simply the dictate of the rulers – even though the Inca rulers provided a religious justification for their laws by presenting themselves as the children of the supreme Sun god.


On the artistic side, the Peruvian cultures developed reliefs and colored them with a variety of paints.  They had music – the flute.  But they did not have stringed instruments.  Their verbal art included the telling of stories (see the Inca origin).  But, in the absence of any written documents, we do not know of any early Peruvian poetry.


On the practical side, it is interesting to note that the Chavin and Moche had already known or “invented” fishing hooks and nets, cotton cultivation and weaving of textiles, many kinds of weapons, and sophisticated metallurgy.  But they did not invent the wheel, neither the pottery wheel, the usage of iron, writing, bow-and-arrow, free-standing sculpture, the arch in construction, nor any advanced form of residential architecture.  Indications are that astronomy was rudimentary at best.  The Peruvian cultures did not have any domesticated animals and livestock besides the llama (also used as an animal of burden) and, to a minor extent, the guinea pig, and later the dog. 


The most important structural remnants of the Moche and subsequent coastal cultures (mainly the Chimu) are the enormous Huacas around Trujillo (Huacas of the Moon and the Sun – and the Dragon or Rainbow Huaca) and around Chiclayo (north of Chiclayo is the main Huaca at Túcume with more than 20 smaller ones around it and the more distant Huaca and tomb of the Lord of Sipan).  West of Trujillo is a cluster of nine walled citadels (each several hundred yards long and wide) within a single city that formed the super-city Chan Chan with possibly more than 35,000 inhabitants – all walls and structures having been built from mud bricks.


The most important artistic remnants in form and decoration from the Moche are the molded pottery items, decorative gold objects, and decorative friezes of all public buildings.


It is not clear why or how the Moche culture that originated around 300 BC came to an end in the time between 650 and 700 AD.  Was it a climate catastrophe, a super El Niño, a long drought?  Was it a super-tsunami?  Was it a plague?  While the general climate along the coast brings only minimal amounts of rain, the occasional Super-Niño (possibly occurring only every 10 to 20 years) can bring enormous amounts of sustained rain over several weeks, not only damaging the mud-brick buildings, but also washing away the irrigation canals and the valuable plantations – leading to famines and, possibly, diseases.  


After this catastrophe, the Wari Empire arose in the Andean highlands around today’s city of Ayacucho.  The empire built its central city in stone available there but not available in the lowland plain of the Moche.  Its artistic expression shows a similarity to cultures existing around Lake Titicaca, the later birthplace of the Inca.  The Wari were aggressive empire builders, soon conquering much of what is now central Peru and lasting for several centuries.


Subsequent to Wari dominance, the lesser-known Sicán culture flourished in the area north of today’s Chiclayo.  Remaining from its later phase is the impressive Huaca of Túcume, built sometime after 1100 AD and consisting of one very large mound surrounded by more than twenty smaller ones.  It was there that the archeologist Thor Heyerdahl found friezes depicting large sailing rafts and found wooden pieces as used on rafts.  This prompted him to pursue his successful project of a raft trip from that area of Peru or Ecuador to Polynesia.


Sometime around 1300 AD, the important culture of the Chimu began to rise in the same area as the prior Moche culture and, after imperialistic extension, extending for 600 miles along the coast.  The Chimu began to build the city of Chan Chan, a settlement of extraordinary size, eventually covering nine square miles!  Not only was the city very large, but within it, nine very large walled compounds or citadels were erected in the course of time, each about 500 meters in length and several hundred meters wide, all built from mud brick.  They each contained the residence of a ruler, believed by some archeologists to have been the governor of the respective part of the city, by others to be the respectively next chief in the succession of rulers of the Chimu.  The citadels also contained a very large square for ceremonial use and extensive storage buildings for the supply of the citizens under control of the ruler.  The Chimu came to an early end when they were politically outmaneuvered and surrendered to the Inca in 1470 AD.  Their best craftsmen were promptly transferred to Cusco.


Other cultures and societies appeared in the Andean area, became powerful, and then succumbed to the Inca.


In addition to the Moche and Chimu in the north and the Nazca in the south, there is Pachacamac in the middle, close to today’s Lima.  What was Pachacamac?  The great mound of Pachacamac – just south of Lima – played a special role in the early Peruvian world.  On the one hand, it was a central holy place dedicated to the highest god and visited by numerous pilgrims (each pilgrim had to bring additional mud bricks as a sacrifice in order to augment the size and complexity of the mound).  Pachacamac is located in a special position on the coast between the Andes, the seat of the gods, and some islands just a few hundred yards offshore, which were considered to be the place of the dead.  On the other hand, Pachacamac was reported to have been a central oracle of the early cultures – somewhat like Delphi in the Greek world – where pilgrims went to learn about their destiny and possibly tried to influence it.  When calamities hit Peru some 15 years ago (the coincidence of a Super-Niño and severe economic problems), native Indians from the high Andes appeared on the Pachacamac mound to conduct old, secret ceremonies, seeking help from the gods.


Much later in time, only after 1400 AD, the Inca became important in Peru’s cultural evolution.  The Incas, having started their conquests beyond the narrow area around Cusco only around 1430 AD, are known for their gigantic masonry of tightly fitted stones.  The largest of these stones are part of the fortress above Ollantaytambo, an hour by car from Cusco, and it remains a mystery how they could have been brought over from the quarry on the other side of the Urubamba River and up the very steep slope to their present location.  However, the Incas should be equally known for their skill in building their empire – including the fightless conquest of the Chimu – and for the social order, prosperity, and peace, which they imposed on the immense area that they conquered, comprising innumerable, formerly hostile tribes.


In sum, the area of today’s Peru appears as a unique and dynamic breeding ground of a succession of cultures that came and vanished.  The specialist may find interest in parsing the many cultures.  Others may see the whole picture of the human rise from the primitive times to cultural significance, developing large-scale agriculture based on irrigation, complex social structures, high forms of art in jewelry and pottery, and devoting a large portion of their resources to building of ever larger, decorated mounds – until they were all wiped out by the conquering Spaniards.  Such is existence for humans, as in nature!


Summary of findings:

-        As everywhere else in nature, an ample food supply and the absence of predatory enemies leads to a corresponding increase in population – possibly to the limits of the food supply.

-        Human cultures appear spontaneously as soon as an ample food supply in any area allows the accumulation of a substantial population on limited space, leading to the building of villages or towns.  Therefore, cultures arise from agriculture, but not necessarily from husbandry requiring spread-out settlements and ongoing movement to new pastures.  (Later, centers of importance resulted from trade – as Singapore, Venice, and the Hansa cities – or industry).

-        Social structure arises from the original family structure, expanded as populations expand to the structure of a clan, the tribe, and the whole culture, most of them being patriarchal.

-        The social structure is necessary to provide orderly life in close proximity and also to accomplish large common projects.  Therefore, most early laws are similar to the Ten Commandments, but are expanded to include social orderliness.

-        The “large common project” often is the execution of irrigation projects (digging of canals, regulation of water distribution), and, later, the building of defensive structures.

-        Geographic isolation favors the origin of cultures by protecting them against envious raiders during an incubation period.  This may explain the specific location of most nascent cultures on Earth.

-        A structured society develops elites around their political leaders, including his relatives and his primary aides (in administration, the military, and among the priests – sometimes among the merchants).

-        It is quite common that nascent cultures sanctify high places when living in hilly areas but, when living in flat areas, build platforms or mounds, not just for common housing, but more so for the elite and for religious rituals or the ceremonial use of the rulers.  The height of the mounds increase with increasing wealth of the culture, sometimes in competition with other neighboring towns or in competition with preceding rulers.

-        In all nascent cultures, the use of art is significantly expanded from simple decorations in primitive groups to expensive decorations of public buildings and the decoration of the elites.

-        Sooner or later, successful cultures begin territorial expansion and empire building.

-        Communication needs do not always lead to the art of writing, but sometimes only to simpler forms of symbolic communication (knotted strings, dotted beans, acoustic communication by symbolic rhythms, such as drums in the jungle, or by optical signals, such as smoke signals).

-        The rise and evolution of cultures may be restrained or impeded by overemphasis on tradition or by political or religious elites.  It is an open question whether the rise of cultures necessarily leads to the culture’s weakening and, ultimate, decline.

-        Minor conquests, minor migrations, trade and even minor communication between cultures can lead to substantial idea-transfer.

-        The end of cultures, if not occurring at the hands of an invading enemy, more often occurs in consequence of environmental degradation (possibly self-induced), political or ethical degradation (resulting in neglect of irrigation, decline of military strength, or other community-supporting functions), climate change (gradual or catastrophic), natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, pests), large-scale diseases, or infighting for power.

-        Cultures are subject to crazes, which absorb resources and limit evolution – whether of material nature, as excessive building activities, or of more abstract nature, as the collection of slaves and sacrificial victims, or of a spiritual nature leading to pilgrimages, building of holy sites, self-imposed limitations, or self-damaging aggressiveness toward others, whether in conquests of remote territories, crusades, or modern terrorism. 

-        As some cultures fade, others may arise in a different area – after a time interval, even in the same area or, through absorption in the conquering culture.




A footnote regarding travel recommendations for northern Peru:

Tourism Agency for Peru for trip arrangements and guides:

We had very satisfactory experience with the following agency and all its guides:

“Chasquitur”, located in Lima

Sandra Ratto (owner) or Geraldine

Tel. from the US:  (011-511) 441-1279 or -1387


Lima:  Everybody visits the famous Gold Museum.  For information on the early cultures, the not very attractive National Museum provides excellent information.  Pachacama can easily be reached from Lima by hired car or taxi (they will gladly wait there).


Trujillo is one hour by plane north of Lima.  Tourist agencies arrange for hotels and also for “transfer” from the airport to the hotel.  The best hotel is the Libertador on the Plaza de Armas.  The best rooms have windows with beautiful views over the plaza.  Cars and guides can be hired for excursions.  The Huacas and Chan Chan can be covered in one day.  A tour of the town is worth an extra day.


The trip to Chiclayo is one hour by plane or two to three hours by car across endless plantations and desert.  Chiclayo does not have outstanding hotels.  The Gran Hotel counts as the best, but it is neither attractive nor well situated.  The Musas is next to a very attractive park and walking distance to the center of town.  Hired cars and guides allow excursions to the Huacas.  The new museum of the Lord of Sipan, just a few miles north of Chiclayo, is outstanding!


For Ecuador, Quito and Cuenca:  Excellent museums on early cultures in the Banco Central!