In 1000 BCE, South America had farmers and fishers on its coastlines. It had pyramid builders in the Andes Mountains in what today are Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, where maize was a staple crop. There were farmers in the upper Amazon and elsewhere in what today is central Brazil. And there were hunter-gatherer societies from Brazil to the south in what today is Argentina.
By 500 BCE in the northwest (today Colombia), social organization had become hierarchic: what anthropologists call chiefdoms had developed. It was a common development to be found in Polynesia, Africa, Europe, North America and elsewhere. Chiefdoms are described as social organizations more complex than what exists with bands of hunter-gatherers but less organized than those societies with a coercive government. A succinct definition of a chiefdom in anthropology is given by Robert L. Carneiro: "An autonomous political unit comprising a number of villages or communities under the permanent control of a paramount chief."
Chavin stirrup vessel
By 500 BCE, hunter-gatherers in Brazil had turned to farming, while hunter-gatherer societies remained in Argentina. Mound building had arisen along the Brazil's Atlantic coast. And in the Andes region in the west, Chavin civilization had appeared, beginning around 900 BCE. These were people who built temples and a drainage system in which water rushing through canals under a temple created the sound of roaring, like their sacred animal the jaguar. Their building involved organizing workers to bring special materials from far away rather than use local rock deposits.
The Chavin demonstrated skills in metallurgy, in soldering and temperature control. They worked with gold. They domesticated animals including llamas and successfully cultivated various crops such as potatoes, quinoa and maize. They had their unique pottery and symbols intended to be read by high priests only.
They extended their influence to neighboring societies. And the cultural diffusion worked both ways. By 30 BCE, after centuries of diffusion, Chavin culture had been lost to the ways of others.
From around 100 CE, a culture called Moche had developed in the northern Andes, centered at Mochica, in what today is northern Peru. Moche civilization was stratified socially. Like others, Moche civilization had an upper class that consisted of warriors and priests, or perhaps warrior-priests: men respected and obeyed. They lived near ceremonial pyramids and other temples. Artisans (craftsmen) made up a middle class. Below them in rank in descending order were farmers, fishermen, servants, slaves and beggars. Moche civilization did have a Sacrifice Priestess who had a high status. She is the only woman that has been found depicted in Moche art.
Cahuachi archaeology site.
Like Chavin civilization, without a written language, non-verbal communications were in symbols, found by archeologists on ceramics. And like Chavin culture, Moche civilization was involved in metal working, including gold, silver and copper.
To the south of Moche civilization was people of the Nazca culture. Today, Nazca is a city on the southern coast of Peru. From years 1 to 500, Nazca society consisted of chiefdoms and regional centers of power around a non-urban ceremonial site of earthwork mounds and plazas. Archaeological work suggests there were rituals and feasting relating to agriculture, water and fertility.
Nazca religious beliefs appear to have been based upon fertility and the growth of crops. Much of Nazca art depicts nature gods: a killer whale, spotted cat, a serpentine creature and a man-like being. Nazca shamans are thought to have used hallucinogenic drugs, depicted on their pottery – drugs such as extractions from the San Pedro cactus.
Nazca burials included "Trophy Heads," skulls with a hole in the forehead through which a rope could be affixed, presumably so that the severed head could be displayed or carried.
At the Nazca archaeology site (at Cahuachi) were also found multi-colored pottery, plain and fancy textiles and trace amounts of gold and spondylus shell. Among the foods found were maize, squash, and beans, as well as peanuts and some fish.
The people of Nazca culture built an impressive system of underground aqueducts, known as puquios, that are still functioning today.
Sometime between the years 220 and 250, the Saladoid peoples along the coast of what is now Venezuela were driven by war to Caribbean islands, where their descendants would meet Columbus.
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