History of Peru Series — Part 12: Ayacucho — The Wari

By Paul Goulder –Special to the Peruvian Times —

The author returns to his focus on Peru’s history with this and upcoming chapters.  The previous 11 chapters are listed at the end. 

Introduction to Parts 12 to 14

The following three parts (12 to 14) throw the spotlight on Ayacucho and deal with a time span from the birth of the Andean pueblos through to a recent newspaper report that Ayacucho is – allegedly – a principal funnel into the VRAE for arms, money laundering, and other accoutrements of narco-terrorism (the VRAE is the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers;  e.g. from Huamanga, the departmental capital which is also called Ayacucho, you can catch a combi down to the Ene).

Part 12 deals with the “golden period” of the Wari empire (550 to 1100 AD), memory and mention of which was lost for 400 years after a brief citation in a post-conquest chronicle. Part 13 will look at the “eternal pueblo on the edge” by visiting Sarhua, one of the better-known of Ayacucho’s mountainside communities. Part 14 is out of historical sequence in order to muse over the question as to whether history offers explanations for Ayacucho’s ups and downs in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Context: The History Series road-map

The first eleven articles in this series covered the period from the first cities (say approximately 5000 years ago) to the end of the classical or early intermediate period around 550 AD. Now we make a visit outside the central coastal area of Peru including Lima to the Wari heartland before continuing a tour to archaeological sites that (between them – see below) tell us much about the period 550 to, say, 1570 AD when the last of the Inca strongholds collapses.

The sheer genius in crafting ceramics and textiles by the Moche, Central Coast (Ancient Lima), and Paracas-Nasca cultures, taken together with the contemporaneous cultures of Recuay, Salinar and Vicús — and in general the splendors of the classical period — provide a reference period or datum line in Peruvian history. This period up to around 500 A.D. could also be labeled “Before Empire” and that empire was called Wari-Tiwanaku.

However, first we have to deal with some basic questions. Was it really an empire? How did it expand? Why did it die? Was it as bloodthirsty as some museums seem to believe? What was its legacy handed down to the Incas?

In Parts 12 to 14 we shall visit the “empire’s” Peruvian heartland in Ayacucho and if you are coming via central Lima there are several historical sites you can visit en route, as set out below. The empire also has a Bolivian capital: Tiwanaku to the south of Lake Titicaca, well worth a visit but, for the moment, just off our map.

The diagram sets out a feasible tour of “Wari and beyond” (600 to 1570 AD). See also the diagram in Part 2 of this series and the index in Part 10 for a guide to preceding periods

Leaving one Classical period . . .

So following the golden, classical period, Peru has been beholden to a series— or perhaps better said, sequence — of empires: both formally and informally. The Wari-Tiwanaku, Inka and Spanish were followed by an “imperialism of free trade” — a not-always-equal-exchange through trade and investment relationships with principally Britain (1821 to 1921) and the United States (1921 to 2021). It is, of course, of great interest to Peruvians resident in the latter two countries as to how that trade and investment, plus a few other vehicles of neocolonialism / americanization / modernization / globalization” [you can have fun defining the differences] such as a contested Disney-esque cultural hegemony were connected to migration patterns (another story).

Note: The dates are rounded to the nearest centenary! However they are perhaps not too far off the mark, as the opening of the Panama Canal and the outbreak of the Great War — both 1914 — are recognizd by many as turning points between GB and US hegemony. Now back to 550 AD.

We now leave behind the coastal “Classical Period” (called the early intermediate period by many archaeologists) and investigate the culture that took over large tracts of what is now Peru: the Wari or Huari (Spanish spelling).

Whereas our treatment of the early intermediate was largely focused on the coastal cultures, for example the Nasca and Moche (there are few organic archaeological remains in the more humid highlands), the Wari homeland was situated in the central-south sierra in the Department of Ayacucho. To add to the confusion over archaeological periods, whereas 0-500 may be regarded as “classical” on the coast, 500-1000 might be considered the classical period of reference in the Andes, if for no better reason than it coincides with the era of Wari expansion.

To what extent was Wari-Tiwanaku an empire.  

The map shows the approximate limits of the Wari empire shown within the outline of modern Peru. The limits, of course, are defined by registered archaeological sites attributable to the Wari. The areas in between the sites may or may not be Wari. Adapted from Schreiber (2004, figure 8.1). The colored map shows, in blue, the adjacent southern area of Tiahuanaco/Tiwanaku influence.

Until the work of Wendell Bennett et al* (1948-53), the Wari were barely recognized as a separate historical entity, let alone an empire. Sometimes thought of as subsidiary to Tiwanaku, an alternate interpretation was that of an empire in common with a spiritual capital in Tiwanaku and an administrative and military headquarters at Wari, near present day Huamanga.

What is undeniable is that of the five “imperialisms” to dominate Peru, Wari-Tiwanaku endured six hundred years [really earlier if the early Tiwanaku period is included] and the Inca barely 100 in many places [e.g. Lima area]. Hence the present ongoing process of reassessment of the public relations job that the Incas did for themselves when giving evidence to the Spanish chroniclers.

The Wari

So we are now dealing with the period, from about 500 AD or so, in Peru’s history when Andean polities or states started to expand and form empires (or at least extended areas of cultural, religious and economic influence). Tiwanaku, Wari, Inca and finally the early years of the Spanish Empire are dealt with in further parts. Tiwanaku is slightly off the present-day Peruvian map so we will include discussion of that great culture within our treatment of the Wari. To do the Wari justice we need to travel to Huamanga, the departmental capital, although in terms of what remains of the Wari – especially anything organic such as textiles – there is perhaps more to be seen in Lima and world museums, e.g. in the U.S. and Europe.




Rather than repeating the storyline overmuch, it will pay to rewind to Part 8 in the Peruvian Times series which you will find by clicking here.

Detail of a textile at the Cusco center for traditional textiles, CTTC — By Weavers for Weavers.

The Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, CTTC, an increasingly respected centre,  comments: Due to extremely dry coastal deserts and the burial customs of many ancient cultures, Peru is blessed to have some of the best preserved ancient textiles in the world. The condition of fibers and colors is astounding as many pieces appear to have been made only yesterday.

Many ancient cultures along Peru’s northern coast developed textiles to a great extent, but [to depart from the Wari for a moment] it is the Chavín who are generally given credit for the invention of the backstrap loom and many of the techniques that weavers in the Andes still use today. Their realm of influence extended over most of the coast of modern day Peru and the Chavín’s plain-cloth, painted textiles depicting their deities have been found in sites far flung from their capital at Chavin de Huantar.

Chronologically following the Chavín, the Paracas [read this essay by Lois Martin/Khan Academy] and Nasca cultures are best known for their stunning embroideries and tapestries. Preserved in underground tombs on the southern desert coast where these two cultures flourished, their textiles inform much of what we know about the Paracas and Nasca as they did not develop a written language like other pre-Columbian cultures.

The Wari, [a highly war-like people] based in the highlands, were the predecessors of the Inca, extending their empire throughout much of modern day Peru. Today they are world renowned for their highly abstract tapestries depicting deities and other cultural concepts. Their textiles look so surprisingly modern for a reason: the Bauhaus school and other early 20th century modern artists were influenced by the abstraction they observed in Wari tapestries.

A ‘random’ collection of principally Wari textiles — as shown above — immediately conveys an idea of the range of colors and textures that craftspeople produced. The dating of these objects is mainly in the sixth century to the tenth. While some designs are abstract, others are more stylized. For example, a detailed analysis of the textile below reads clear meaning into a section of the weaving. The design includes the representation of a trophy head — an apparently important element in Wari culture.  For further examination of these points see Cleveland Museum.

The historical importance of the Wari heartland

The people of Ayacucho have a notable and noble heritage. There is an historical and geographical conjuncture which is more easily understood by standing at the westernmost shoulder —a form of mirador or vantage point— of the Wari archaeological site that lies just outside Huamanga. Behind you lies the mysterious energy of the Wari city, temple, mausoleum and fortress, which itself was the nerve center of the first pan-Peruvian culture. This thrived between 550 and about 1100. But in front stretches one of the most beautiful, significant, menacing and tragic panoramas in Peru. There are scenes of both life and death.

Marked A on the triple image below, the Pikimachay cave could be considered —both in legend and in fact— as the birthplace of humankind in Peru. Dating back 22,000 years, the hombre de Pacaicasa still holds the title as the earliest archaeological dateable human remains in Peru. The cave lies just across the valley from this mirador and the ancient city of the Wari. Also within sight of Wari (just 10 kms distance) is the white monument (marked B), a quasi-obelisk, marking the Pampa de Quinua battle (the Battle of Ayacucho) that finally ended Spanish rule in most of South America (barring Olañeta’s last stand in Alto Peru and the final siege of the Royal Fortress of San Felipe).

So the Wari area, some thirty minutes outside Ayacucho is not scoring so badly as the cradle, the navel and ombligo of the Peruvian nation: a title long claimed by Cusco. To these feats of creating the first pan-Peruvian empire, possessing the birthplace of the earliest “Peruvian” and the site of victory for Peruvian “independence,”  might be added — looking into the distant mountains (see A and B again)— the location of the first major canal aqueduct feeding water into a large city.

But there is always a but. The same scene was host to the brutal “support us or you’re dead” intimidation and counter-intimidation campaigns of Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and the Peruvian military. Ayacucho’s own Museum of Memory (C) testifies to the tragedy. For twenty years or more Ayacucho went into reverse gear. Consequently (from our point of view in history/archaeology) little scientific excavation work took place. The foot-soldiers of world scholarship (doctorate students, etc) deserted Ayacucho and the South-central Andes after having inundated the area during the Velasco (socio-economic reform) era.

From the mirador of the vast Wari archaeological site you can see across the valley to the site of the “earliest Peruvian troglodytes (cave-dwellers)” – the Pikimachay cave (A). Turn some degrees clockwise and a glimpse may be had of the Battle of Ayacucho monument (B). The mountains beyond were the water-source of the earliest aqueduct feeding water to a city but also the scene of some of the bloodiest conflict in the “civil war” of the 1980’s. Huamanga’s own Museum of Memory (C) bears witness to the tragedy. Photos: A & B, P.Goulder; C, Museum of Memory website]

A network of ranked cities

An “hierarchical network” of urban centers were linked by an extensive system of roads, precursors to the Royal Highways of the Incas. This centralized bureaucratic organization had as its center the city of Wari with a population of around 30,000 inhabitants at that time. It occupied over 2000 acres containing rectilinear high-walled enclosures on ground with a view, overlooking the valley and across to the Pampa de Quinua, the site of the battle of Ayacucho which took place on December 9, 1824.

By most accounts the state was both theocratic (rule by the gods via priests) and militarist. This was the interpretation that Peruvian-American film director Luis Llosa (father of Claudia and cousin of Mario Vargas) took when making multimedia presentations for Lima’s metropolitan museum

Without doubt Wari was a militaristic state which came to invade the regional “cultural entities” or polities of the early intermediate/classical period: Moche or Mochica, Nasca and so on. At its zenith the Wari expansion included an area stretching from Cajamarca and Lambayeque in the north to Moquegua, Arequipa and Cusco in the south. Map II extends to include the neighboring parallel and contemporaneous empire of Tiahuanaco, many of whose symbolic iconographic, organizational and technological systems were incorporated into the world of the Wari, who were then able to diffuse them to the wider Andean territory.

It is even suggested that both Wari and Tiwanaku share something of the Puquina language that emanated from southern Peru.

Tiwanaku / Tiahuanaco & Huari / Wari  

For Bolivians the key culture of the “middle horizon” period is that of Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco in Spanish) supported by the lakeside economy of nearby Lake Titicaca. During the second half of the first millennium this ceremonial and administrative center rose to prominence and achieved virtual cult status. It was the highest-known capital in the ancient world at some 12,500 feet above sea level and its population may have reached an estimated 40,000 inhabitants, large for the median date of 750 AD.

Until the veteran Peruvian specialist Lumbreras, born in Ayacucho, established that the Wari were a culture “in their own right” it was thought by many that Tiwanaku was the transcendental civilization and that the Huari — sharing iconography— were interrelated and perhaps sub-dominant. Either way, the Wari occupied a period in history within which the technologies associated with the Incas (roads, stone technology, the quipu accounting and recording devices, food storage and distribution, local government administration within imperial control, military operations systems) were developed and honed.

 Enter the hallowed precincts of the site museum located at the reserved archaeological zone of Wari and there will be found the mural (right) which explains the succession of cultures constituting the regional pre-hispanic cultures (right column)5000 to2000 Arcaico; 2000 to 0 (easier to remember!) Chavin; 0 to 500 Huarpa; 500 to 1100 Wari;1100 to 1350 Chankas. From 1350 there was a comparatively short period of Inca domination of less than one hundred years, cut short of course by Spanish invasion. [Culture chart at Wari site zoom.jpg. Photo of mural: P.Goulder]

Raised-Bed Irrigation

At their peak between 700 AD and 1000 AD, the Tiwanaku Empire controlled nearly the entire Lake Titicaca basin as well as extensive holdings in Peru and Chile. Their engineers and farmers turned the broad valley of the Katari River, a tributary of Titicaca, into their breadbasket, using extensive canals and causeways to irrigate a vast area of corn, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops. “They actually altered the meanders of the river,” says John Janusek, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University who excavated several Tiwanaku settlements, “and turned it into a straight shot through the valley.”

Modern-day raised bed irrigation systems at Tiwanaku. Source: Kenneth Wright and www.waterhistory.org

A 32-year drought from 563-594 AD caused widespread devastation across the empire. There is evidence, however, that a lesson was learned. The rulers took the catastrophe as a warning. They revolutionized their agriculture, instituting a totally new system which, some believe, allowed the empire to prosper for an additional 400 years. In any event, Tiwanaku agricultural surpluses after the drought can be attributed to raised-bed irrigation.

Water surrounded raised agricultural mounds, a method recognized in recent years by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as a global heritage to humanity. Warmed during the day, the water keeps the crops from freezing during the cold Andean nights and even extended the growing season. Raised-bed agriculture grew to encompass an immense area, at least 19,000 hectares (47,120 acres). Studies show that land cultivated in this manner could yield 20 metric tons of potatoes per hectare. Construction of the raised-bed irrigation system no doubt required major earth moving operations.

Two modern warriors of Wari culture

Luis Guillermo Lumbreras

The Lumbreras family have for long been associated with the Huamanga (Ayacucho) region and Don Luis is one of Peru’s “national treasures” equivalent perhaps to David Attenborough in the United Kingdom. Lumbreras, from a family of hacendados with a liberal reputation and with a distinguished cast of other Peruvian and overseas estudiosos (Isbell, Schreiber et al.)  kept the flickering flame of civilization and scholarship just about alight during the period of insurgency and repression 1980 to 2000. Watch La Cultura Wari on Youtube (at 1.10) or   El Señor de Wari  [There were authors who had started their research before 1982 only to present it at conferences two decades or more later].


Dr. William Isbell

Isbell is a distinguished professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, New York.  He is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the Andean Middle Horizon.  Huari Excavation 2017 is a crowdfunding campaign video to raise funds for his multi-year project “that would allow more students to participate in an archaeological excavation of the ancient city of Huari in Ayacucho, Peru.” Something not possible for the couple of decades and more mentioned above. ( Video with good definition.) Also watch Urban Prehistory of Huari.

Fall of the Empire

The German adventurer Arthur Posnansky (an adopted national treasure but somewhat fallen) explored Tiwanaku in 1904 and his 1945 monumental two-volume book attributed its decline to “malign climate conditions.” Indeed, the historical record confirms that Andean climate can be malign. “Climatological data developed by Lonnie Thompson from the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru indicates a decrease in precipitation between 650 AD and 730 and between 1245-1310. High dust concentrations peaked between 600-920 coinciding with periods of massive field construction. Also beginning in 1000 there was a rise in the mean temperature (between 0.5 and 1 degree). Alan L. Kolata [The Tiwanaku: Portrait of an Andean Civilization] suggests that this is the beginning of the Little Ice Age, which caused a serious drought resulting in agricultural collapse and ultimately the demise of the Empire.” (See also K. Wright in references).

Kolata’s version of the decline and fall of the Tiwanaku Empire, however, is not the only one. Another theory holds that the demise resulted from a fracturing of the belief structure and trade systems, starting at the periphery and culminating in the abandonment of the pilgrimage center at Tiwanaku. But even if you buy the latter argument, it’s hard to dismiss the evidence of “environmental determinism”. The arguments also now get more technical!

Want a better date ?

You have probably noticed that dates for the rise and fall of the Wari vary according to the source of information. One of the more precise techniques for measuring age or antiquity in, for example, bones or human remains is the use of accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon measurements. See https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228832063_The_End_of_Empire_New_Radiocarbon_Dates_from_the_Ayacucho_Valley_Peru_and_Their_Implications_for_the_Collapse_of_the_Wari_State The Abstract is as follows: This paper presents a suite of new accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon measurements from the Ayacucho Valley of Peru and discusses their implications for the timing and nature of the collapse of the Wari Empire. Analysis of these and previously published dates from the region indicate that there is little evidence for state political authority in Ayacucho prior to the end of the 7th century. Dated human remains from the polity’s eponymous capital indicate that the authority of the state’s rulers persisted at least as late as the mid-11th century. Dates from rural sites in the Ayacucho Valley suggest continuity of occupation and folk material culture following Wari’s disintegration. Finally, AMS measurements of bone from 2 large extramural ossuaries represent the first absolute dates associated with Chanca ceramics and suggest that this archaeological/ethnohistoric culture appeared in the valley at about AD 1300.

Finally, a bonus of brilliant Wari textiles can be found on Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/kingswoodws/wari-textiles-from-south-america/

Incidentally . . . . Don’t confuse your chankas, huantas, huancas and huaris..
First we should note that the HU in Spanish is rendered as W in Quechua (and often in English). Wari becomes Huari. One convention is that, where appropriate, a contemporary location is spelt with the Spanish HU and the historical culture with a Quechua or Aymara W.

The Chankas were the lineal descendants of the Wari in the late intermediate period, that is immediately before the Incas, against whom they held out for some time. Their form of Quechua also is quite attractive to the foreigner as it does not use the Cusco glottal stop and hence is easier to learn. Huanta is a town and province (see map) to the north of Huamanga. Huanta is particularly associated in the Peruvian consciousness with some of the violent confrontations between Sendero Luminoso and the Military in the early 1980s.

The Wankas maintained an independent state until about 1200 AD, centered around Wankayuq (Huancayo in Spanish) which is now the departmental capital of Junín.

The Wari are of course the subject of this article.

End Menu
guide to this menu relocating| zotero bibliography | pbs films on peru | lanic-peru | bbc history of the world podcasts | evolving articles | study/research peru sas-isa | wikipedia articles on peru | other (oa) open access | oa archaeology | jstor.com article storage | academia.com caveat| researchgate. com caveat |


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.



HISTORY OF PERU SERIES – Part 1: The Dawn Of UrbanizationJune 23, 2010 This was the first in a series of articles on Peru’s history, incorporating stories from the Peruvian Times archives, as well as links to videos, audio and other external sources to provide a rich background of information. This first part deals with the formation of the first towns and ceremonial sites in the Americas. […]

Part 2: Tour 3000 BC To 500 AD July 3, 2010 The second in a series on Peru’s history takes you on a tour through time, visiting four historic sites.  Between them they span more than 3000 years of Peru’s development and cover (Part 1) the first towns, (Part 3) the age of U-shaped monuments, Chavin and Garagay, (Part 4) the decline of the Chavin unifying culture or cult and the transition period typified by the  Huallamarka truncated pyramid in San Isidro, Lima and (Part 5) Peru´s first golden age which saw the emergence of the Moche, the Lima (Pucllana) and the Paracas-Nasca cultures. […]

Part 3: Monumental Architecture July 18, 2010 Across the world, the period 3000 BC to 500 BC (approx.) was an era of monumental architecture. Think Stonehenge (UK), Carnac (France). And then think of 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 the form of a U. […]

Part 4: Transition – The decline of Chavín and the rise of the Lima Culture: Huallamarca August 4, 2010 Following Part 3 we have now arrived at approximately 200 BC in our time tour.  We have traveled in the series from the beginnings of  towns through a long stretch of Peruvian history in which the development of monumental architecture, irrigation systems, ceramics and textiles are underpinning more complex social, political and economic structures. Chavin had given its name to an iconographic style. This unifying “early horizon” may have had roots in other areas. For example the Garagay site in San Martin de Porres predates that of Chavin.[…]

Part 5: The Pucllana / Moche / Nazca Period September 3, 2010 A.D. 200 –   650/800. The Lima Culture: Betwixt or Amidst the Moche and the Nasca. The fifth in the series looks on as the Lima (Lurin, Rimac and Chillon valleys) culture spreads its wings yet coexists with the more exuberant Moche to the north and Nazca to the south. Peru was not just all-Inca. […]

Part 6: Reading The Past, Righting The Record November 13, 2010  A simple visit to the Pucllana huaca has provoked some simple questions: Where´s the water supply? What language did they speak? What did their clothes look like? Did they write? We are at 200/500 AD and there are no wheels on our wagons – in fact no wagons yet. Before we start our next “time-tour” let’s try to answer three key questions. What system for record-taking did the ancient Peruvians have – could it be called writing? (Part 7) How did the pre-Wari cultures tame the desert with only elementary technology? […]

Part 7: The Lima Culture and WaterJanuary 21, 2011 If writing had been a “scarce commodity” in the Pucllana period, water was another: water has always been western Peru’s number-one scarce – but perversely sometimes too abundant – resource. There had been varying years of a desert climate interspersed with rare mud slides and flash floods […]

 Part 8: Ancient TextilesMarch 31, 2011. Part eight has an overall look at Peruvian Textiles. Anyone who touches this subject realizes their beauty and their complexity. Some of the oldest and most amazing textiles in the world were preserved in desert graves for posterity. Somewhat pre-Picasso, the Wari people and empire (Peru AD 600 to 900) were “abstract artists” abstracting barely recognizable yet iconic […]

Part 9: Metallurgy, Jewelry and Gold  May 4, 2011 This week we examined the tools historians possess for analyzing the impact of new technologies, particularly in metallurgy. In terms of a time-line, this part starts in an age of copper and ends as bronze makes an appearance. But all the time it is gold that steals the show. […]

 Part 11: From Paracas to Wari – the center of cultural activity moves to the highlands  

Part 10: The Big Picture —3500 BC – 500 AD

HISTORY OF PERU SERIES: The Peruvian Times Guide to the “End Menu” May 4, 2011 The End Menu contains all the links necessary to turn you into the leading professor of Peruvian studies. Unfortunately the Peruvian authorities or the gods don’t want you to be and tolerate all sorts of non-neoliberal obstacles to your right to Access Critical Knowledge. The end menu looks like […]




Sharing is caring!


  1. you guys should make a separate list or links to find all the parts, I go to the first part and can’t find a direct link to the second one.

Leave a Reply to Ellie Griffis Cancel

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *