HISTORY OF PERU SERIES – Part 3: Monumental Architecture

By Paul Goulder – Special to Peruvian Times

Across the world, the period 3000 BC to 500 BC (approx.) was an era of monumental architecture. Think Stonehenge (UK), Carnac (France) or the pyramids of Egypt. In the case of Peru the giant structures took on the form of truncated, flat-topped pyramid platforms – sometimes arranged in a U shape. See below for a reconstructed model.

In this part we assemble the satellite images of the four key sites 3000 BC to 700 AD mentioned in the Time-Tour (see Part 2),  to compare dimensions and other aspects of these “mysterious”  and awe-inspiring structures. Plus a sideways look is taken towards the Egyptian pyramids, and we wonder if working as corporate labor, slaves or indentured monumental masons wasn’t perhaps all that much fun.

Either way, early-Peruvians of the Chavin period and before left a legacy of giant stone and/or adobe constructions, the scale of which has seldom been equalled, even to this day. One particularly useful online resource in English deals with the earlier part of this period: James W. Jacobs’   Early Monumental Architecture of the Peruvian Coast.  A reference in Spanish, mentioned in Part 1, can be found in Lizardo Tavera’s  Archaeology of Peru.

Many archaeologists divide the period into the pre-ceramic, which includes the years up to 1800 BC when pottery technology was introduced —apparently from the North— and the formative period when icons and designs could be disseminated on clay.

Missing links

The unexpectedly early carbon-dating given to Caral, and even earlier dates in adjacent valleys, leaves a gap between the early cities with their dispersed mounds or truncated pyramids and the further monumental phase represented in the Rimac valley (drainage) by the Huaca La Florida and Garagay. Garagay is under huayco-type mud (inundation or mud-slide) by 1000 BC, so another gap opens up before we arrive at Huallamarca (See tour Part 2). Another challenge to the school texts has also appeared, casting doubts over the dates and direction of the Chavin (Ancash) era of influence or horizon. (More about this in later episodes).


Caral in the Supe valley was the first stop of the tour in Part 2 and the subject of Part 1. Supe is but one of the valleys which make up this magnificent area called the Norte Chico. There are interlinked sites of “pirámides truncadas” flat topped, terraced pyramid-mounds. In the case of the Caral site there are six flat-topped pyramids (some specialists prefer “montículos”) that adorn the desert – it is only the Supe valley floor that is irrigated. There are some civilian residential foundations plus good carbon-dating support claims of “formation of first towns and cities.”Abandoned before the use of ceramics 1800 BC. Multiplex pyramid plan. Aerial view from Google Maps.

EGYPT – Great Pyramid 2560 BC

Outlined by the green line, the largest of the pyramids stands out clearly through the cloudless sky. Keeping to the same scale as the sites in Peru (the marker, bottom left, shows 500 meters and 1000 feet) and a N-S orientation. The pyramid’s base (red line) is 230 meters with height 146 meters.  Aerial view from Google Maps.

Garagay, second site visited in the Time Tour (see Part 2) was influenced by the Chavin cultural and religious expansion and, it is thought, vice versa.  Garagay represents a “boom” in monumental U-shaped worship arenas or – according to another explanation –  protected huertas. These huertas or nurseries produced high value, sacred or life-critical crops. This was the first archaeological period in which one culture had a wide regional spread. Aka (also known as) the Early Horizon period. The green line superimposes the size of the great pyramid and the yellow is the line of the 1970’s cerco or perimeter wall which – in the 1980’s – was broken through. See the enlarged photo to appreciate the damage to the south-east corner (the shoulder and upper right arm). The Huaca La Florida and Huaca El Paraíso were competitors for the second spot in our tour.
HUALLAMARCA (Pan de Azucar) – 200 BC to 200 AD 

Thought to be a transition period between the “monumental period” or the period of the “early horizon / Chavin influence” and a period of more local autonomy in which the Lima Culture flourishes, alongside that of Paracas/Nazca in the south and the Moche to the north. During this intervening period “constructed huacas” become (slightly) more intimate with long ramps and “molded/tapia” walls. Huallamarca is alongside an important water course and irrigation canal of the Rimac drainage (Lima valley). Aerial view from Google maps.

PUCLLANA (Huaca Juliana) – 200 to 700 AD

We are now in the period or archaeological classification that is called the “early intermediate” — intermediate between early (Chavin) and middle horizon (Wari Empire).  Parallel development was taking place in Maranga, which can be viewed when visiting the Zoo and Parque de las Leyendas. The Moche to the north and the Nazca to the south are better-known cultures, also flourishing and producing stunning art. The Moche are at this time forming the first “state” in Andean South America. Currently, Pucllana is one of the better conserved huacas, after initial “invasions” (by middle-class developers) of the site in the 1940s.  Aerial view from Google Maps.

Finally, we might ask the question: Are these sites typical or are they just “one-offs”? Perhaps there are no others in the Lima area? In fact, Lima was “covered” with canals, huacas and their associated settlements and huertas. Well over 100 either remain or did so within living memory before contemporary Lima expanded and destroyed many of them. A map of these sites compiled by Rogger Ravines and published in the Boletin de Lima is reproduced below.

Next Part: Part 4 – Huallamarca and transition. With an article published in the Peruvian Times of 1964 to mark out the way for us we revisit the Pan de Azúcar via the colonial hacienda which is now central to San Isidro to see how much things have changed.


  • In the early 1960s, Lima built a sunken expressway between the centre and Barranco along the line of the abandoned tramway. Now known as the Via Expresa or Zanjon (the ditch), its excavation could have served as a mammoth archaeological dig – especially valuable as it follows the line of the ancient pre-hispanic highway to the coast. Much of the excavated material was dumped to enlarge the coastal littoral so, who knows, next time you go building sandcastles on the beach you might find a few missing links.

Listen to the BBC Radio 4 History of the World in 100 objects | See a Zotero bibliography and “list of links with notes” on Peruvian studies | Help edit an extended “evolving” article on this topic | Find other articles in the “wiki” domains about early Peruvian cities and archaeological sites  |  Add your own article to the online collection (click on “Create new article” in left box of article you are opening) | Watch a PBS film which provides contemporary information and background on Peru._________________________________

Paul Goulder: Academic and specialist on Latin America and Peru. Last academic posts: ENSCP-Paris; King’s College, University of London; UNSA, Arequipa, Peru. Also not-for-profit work in ecology, development and education in UK and Peru.

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