A diverse period – and one marked by intense development in almost every field – is the Classical Era (200-1100 AD), which saw the emergence of numerous distinct cultures, both on the coast and in the sierra. The best documented, though not necessarily the most powerful, are the Moche and Nasca cultures (both probably descendants of the coastal Paracas culture) and the Tiahuanuco, all forebears of the better-known Incas. In recent years, though, archaeological discoveries in the Lambayeque Valley on the north coast have revealed important ceremonial centres – particularly the Sicán culture’s massive sacred complex of truncated pyramids at Batan Grande.

The Moche culture has left the fullest evidence of its social and domestic life, all aspects of which, including its work and religion, are vividly represented in highly realistic pottery. The first real urban culture in Peru, its members maintained a firm hierarchy, an elite group combining both secular and sacred power. Ordinary people cultivated land around clusters of dwelling sites, dominated by sacred pyramids – man-made huacas dedicated to the gods. The key to the elite’s position was probably their organisation of large irrigation projects, essential to the survival of these relatively large population centres in the arid desert of the north coast.

More or less contemporaneous with the Moche, the Nazca culture bloomed for several hundred years on the south coast. The Nazca are thought to be responsible for the astonishing lines and drawings etched into the Pampa de San José, though little is known for certain about their society or general way of life.
Named after its sacred centre on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the Tiahuanuco culture developed at much the same time as the Moche – with which, initially at least, it peacefully coexisted. Tiahuanuco textiles and pottery spread along the desert, modifying both Mochica and Nazca styles and bending them into more sophisticated shapes and abstract patterns. The main emphasis in Tiahuanuco pottery and stonework was on symbolic elements featuring condors, pumas and snakes – more than likely the culture’s main gods, representing their respective spheres of the sky, earth and underworld. In this there seem obvious echoes of the deified natural phenomena of the earlier Chavín cult.

An increasing prevalence of intertribal warfare characterised the ultimate centuries of this era, culminating in the erection of defensive forts, a multiplication of ceremonial sites (including over 60 large pyramids in the Lima area), and, eventually, the uprooting of Huari-Tiahuanuco influence on the coast by the emergence of three youthful mini-empires – the Chimu, the Cuismancu and the Chincha. In the mountains its influence mysteriously disappeared to pave the way for the separate growth of relatively large tribal units such as the Colla (around Lake Titicaca), the Inca (around Cuzco) and the Chanca (near Ayacucho).

Partly for defensive reasons, this period of isolated development sparked off a city-building urge, which became almost compulsive by the Imperial Era in the twelfth century. The most spectacular urban complex was Chan Chan (near modern Trujillo), built by the Chimu on the side of the river opposite to earlier Mochica temples but indicating a much greater sophistication in social control, the internal structure of the culture’s clan-based society reflected in the complex’s intricate layout. By now, with a working knowledge of bronze manufacture, the Chimu spread their domain from Chan Chan to Tumbes in the north and Paramonga in the south – dominating nearly half the Peruvian coastline.

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