The Initial Period

© Alvaro Higueras 2003

Ecology, resources,
and subsistence

There is a steady increase in population numbers on the desertic Pacific coast. In this period, it is suggested that reliance on food gathering and hunting from the "lomas"; diminishes while reliance on horticulture increases to levels that qualify as agriculture.

The higher proportions of cultigens (cotton, beans, potatoes, peanuts, avocado) in refuse areas and in storage structures in storage areas of sites of this period (e.g. at Pampa de las Llamas in the Casma Valley) is evidence of  the start of agriculture and a controlled organization of production. The higher reliance on plants and fruits is correlated with an increasing improvement of fields surrounding sites with irrigation works, such as canals and costumized furrow works.

The new location of most of the new sites of this period is consistent with the new exploitation interests: sites move from the sea shore area to the neck of the valley deltas, 10-15 km inland (except some site of the Late Preceramic period that continue to be occupied). In the picture below, Caballo Muerto lies at the neck of the Moche river delta, where control of waters is easily managed to irrigate the nearby fields (note on the lower right corner the current cultivated fields).

The needs of an increasingly extensive agriculture in the alluvial valleys of the coast required a control of the fields and the agricultural seasons. It is suggested that responsibility of directing and controlling these tasks was in charge of an group of priests who knew how to predict the agricultural cycles and thus to direct the tasks. Observations of the sky with the movement of the stars could  announce the important moments of the agricultural cycle: planting, irrigation, germination and harvesting.

Caballo Muerto / Huaca de los Reyes

The principal sites recorded to date for this period are located on the north coast, where a higher number of survey projects have recorded them. Many of the Late Preceramic sites will continue to be occupied and will be shaped to integrate the new architectural features of this period (which develop from basic patterns of the Late Preceramic.) The more representative sites of this period are:
Moche valley 1   Caballo Muerto
South of Casma 2   Las Haldas
Casma valley
  • Cerro Sechin
  • Sechin Alto
  • Pampa de las Llamas
  • Moxeke
Chillon valley 3   El Paraiso
Rimac valley 4   La Florida
Lurin valley 5   Cardal
Highland sites
  • Huacaloma
  • Kunturwasi
  • Pacomanpa
  • Chavin de Huantar

Flash movies

The most important U-shaped complexes The U-shaped complexes in the Casma valley Hear more about Caral, Supe, from researcher
Dr. Ruth Shady
Society The existence of large-scale settlements indicate the first stages of complex social organization of populations, most probably under a religious-type structure. These large scale works indicate initial steps into communal, labor organization. Andean societies will develop complex mechanisms for communal labor and state-level societies will engage in large scale works using human labor as a tribute means.
Evolution of monumental architecture





Architectural endeavors in this period will continue with the important innovations of the previous period. The widespread architectural structure found in the ever larger complexes consists in a U-shaped temple, an evolution of the single truncated pyramid of the Late Preceramic period. The patterns of monumental architecture will continue to be developed with the introduction of some key architectural features, the use of adobe (sun dried bricks) and stone in buildings, and the start of a monumental art to decorate the buildings.

The U-shaped temple, oriented towards the headwaters of the valley, is built with a combination of:
  • a high truncated pyramid (at the bottom of the U) made of superimposed platforms, of up to 25m. ;
  • two wings, flanking each side, and of lower height, of the central mound;
  • two parallel, long, and narrow platforms, at right angles to the wings, enclosing
  • a flat, open central, rectangular plaza (court), enclosed by the above elements, and open towards the headwaters; this flat area may have been seasonally cultivated;
  • circular sunken pits, located at the joints of the wings and arms, and in the center of the open plazas;
  • atriums in each of the two or more platforms of the mound(s) overlooking a plaza; the atrium, which is accessed by wide stairways from the plaza side, is decorated with elaborated, modeled, large-scale, painted, polychrome motifs.

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Venus of Curayacu (region of Lima) © MNAAH

In this period, people start crafting a pottery assemblage that will resemble very much the cut gourds that were used in the previous period to cook and to store liquids and grains (gourds were often prepared with a clay lining). Fired clay vessels have more resistance and longevity. Unfired clay figurines are still produced. 

This new pottery assemblage will consist in neckless ollas, bottles with tall necks, large shallow bowls, and in fewer cases open plates. New shapes like tazones, with right angles at the base, will flourish in this and the next period.

Clays used in this period are coarse with excess of sand and grass, and fired without good heat control in simple, open kilns, producing therefore monochrome wares: light brown to reddish wares, often with black spots due to contact with charcoal.

Before firing, there is a coarse smoothing of the dry clay, often with fingers or a grass brush that leaves and heterogeneous striation of the vessel. This is not the type of smoothing that will give a shiny aspect to surfaces in later periods.

There is a start of simple decoration and some modelled portions of the vessels. Incisions, of different width and shape, dominate the decoration: lines, circles, forming triangles, punctuated zones, often with red pigment impregnated in the incisions. The effects of incised decoration will vary depending on which stage of clay dryness it was done (where incisions in very dry state result in thins and superficial incisions). There is also casos of incisions made on already fired vessels.

Modeling consists in small appliqués (pieces of humid clay applied the walls) to areas of the vessels, usually wide necks, where the walls have been shaped to resemble human heads. The small appliqués, that create ears, noses or eyes,  may have incisions and be surrounded by them to create the decoration.

Another pottery artifact that will be common in this period are stamp and cylinder seals, which are used to stamp cotton textiles with red pigment designs.

The development of the pottery of this period is found in various sites of the Central Andes: Pandanche, in the highlands Cajamarca region, Guañape and Las Haldas on the North coast, Chira, Ancón and Curayacu in the Central coast, Hacha in the South coast, Kotosh Waira-Jirca in eastern slopes of the Andes. Almost all these sites have subsequent development during the Formative period.


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Plain weave with few warps
of rough cotton yarns

This is a period of innovations in the textile craft in the Central Andes. The most important examples are from Pampa Gramalote and Huaca Prieta in the Chicama valley and Las Haldas on the North coast, Ancón on the Central coast and Hacha and Erizo on the South coast.

At Pampa Gramalote we find predominance of the plain weave technique. Use of interlocking of wefts represents about a quart of the assemblage. There is also textiles that combine both techniques: these cases are produced by alternating plain weave and interlocking of warps in order to produce structural decoration of textiles, as in the case of Huaca Prieta.

The plain weave technique will extend to all the coast towards the end of the Initial period, and will imply the use of a loom (is possible that at first the horizontal loom was used for interlocked weavings). Differences in techniques on the South, Central, and North coast does not imply differences in final aspect of textiles; these differences regard the production of the yarns and the combination of them in the warp and weft (Wallace 1979). These complex variations will vary again in the next period, but mostly related to the introduction of new decorating techniques. For example, the high number of paired wefts, mostly used on the North and South coasts, may represent a continuity of the interlocking technique that used paired wefts, but will disappear almost totally during the Formative period.

The decorative methods used by the end of the Intial period and in the beginnings of the Formative period and not only tied to the use of a loom and the basics of plain weave but relate also to techniques where the loom rods start playing an important role, in order to help the uses of different bobbins of yarns of different colors. Cotton in its different natural shades from white to dark brown are the main source for yarns.

The two main techniques started during the late Initial period are: discontinued warps, supplementary warps (in a brocade fashion), and the start of tapestry (kelim).

The structural relations between plain weave and  these decorative techniques is important. Tapestry, that will further develop during the Formative, is derived from the decoration of discontinued warps and warp-face weaves. In the late Initial Period the extensive use of decoration with warps will decrease, as it is a technique ill suited to create areas of solid color on a weaving. This technique will be replaced then, by the kilim technique where compression of the weft yarns, helped by the rods, creates better solid color area on the weave.

Kilim will become a central technique in the Central Andes until today. It is very popular and very versatile, with a broad range of complexity and potential for decoration: from vertical bands (with different colors for the warp, indeed a variation of the procedures of plain weaves), horizontal bands (with different weft colors) to complex designs (that will appear as early as the Early Intermediate Period).

If a true kilim technique is not used, the closest technique in this period is the brocade, which is a decoration made with extra warps to create decorated portions on the plain weave.

The most common colors are the light brown and dark brown yarns, with some cases of blue yarns (dyed with plant sources).

Finally, the technique of supplementary warps decoration (or brocade) is also made on plain weave. Still, it is a technique little used during the Initial and Formative periods but will be more popular in later times.

Innovations in textile techniques in the Initial Period concentrate on the use of the loom to create plain weaves. And the loom gives place to many other innovations that affect the designs of the weavings. But decoration in not too complex, mostly concentrating on stripped or plaid patterns. The magnificent works of artisans at Huaca Prieta are an exception.

Before the discovery of a burial with fragments of metal in the place of Muyu Moqo, Andahuaylas, dated to 1500 BC, it was thought that the first modification of metal, hence metallurgical activities, was during the Formative Period of the North coast.

The offerings in the Muyu Moqo burial included nine gold scales, finely hammered, with lapiz lazuli beads in the hands of the deceased. The mouth had a large size bead with a rolled sheet of gold inserted in its central hole. The fragments are small (5 mm) and the sheet is 41 mm of long. Metallurgical instruments found consisted in three cylindrical hammers of stone and an anvil, and some stone bowls where they might have tested annealing to avoid cracking the sheet. It is interesting to note that the three hammers were not of similar hardness: they are basalt, sandstone, and a chalk hammer: each one would serve for different phases of the hammering process.

The most important evidence of metalwork in this period comes from the graves of San Pedro/Kunturwasi on the Cajamarca highlands. It shows the dexterity of artisans to produce laminated gold artifacts: flat plaques with complex feline iconography, tridimensional crowns made of cut and repoussé decoration. See a sample.


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Hand and pestle of polished stone © MNAAH

In this period there is strong increase in the use of grinding stones: batanes and manos, mostly used for grain processing. But small stone bowls and pestles are also used for grinding pigments and in metalwork activities.

Death Overall, burials in this period start showing more refined offerings, but  social differentiation is not always evident in every site. In this sense, we have the burials of Kunturwasi on one end, and those in Cardal. Burials at both sites are assiated to monumental architecture. But burials at Kunturwasi are richly prepared, while the burials on top of the main mound at Cardal  show a limited number of grave goods: a few ordinary ceramics; one old man had a necklace of sea lion teeth and earspools made from porpoise vertebrae. At Cardal, the most elite burials  show few objects of high status, while in Kunturwasi there is no doubt that the gold objects are restricted to some few people.
Summary The main debate to understand human societies in this period revolves around the existence of state-level societies this early in time (or, said loosely, 'civilization'). The debate has focused on the evidence available from the Casma valley, which has the densest occupation of monumental architecture in this period, and more recently on the Supe valley and the eary process documented at Caral and its hinterland. However, the arguments stemmed from the debate for this valley can clearly apply to the occupation of the valley of Lurin, where there is also a high number of sites for this period.

The debate is fired by T. and S. Pozorski, archaeologists working in the Casma valley for more than a decade. It is confronted by R. and L. Burger, who work in the Lurin valley for the same period. What do they say?

FIRE: The Pozorski's believe that a state-level organization exists in Casma by 1500 BC. The sites of this period are altogether part of a unified polity; they argue that the needs and obligations in irrigation agriculture requires a unified administration.

The archaeological evidence in the complex Pampa de las Llamas/Moxeque does support the existence of buildings for different functions: Huaca A dedicated for storage, with restricted access and barriers; small mounds around Huaca A; residential platforms with different qualities of construction, hence dwellings for people of different status.

They propose that during the Initial period there is a complex hierarchy of sites with different functions that shape the life of the state-level polity. They suggest that Taukachi-Konkan, because its high-status residential evidence is the capital of the polity, although this is less convincing. Sechin Alto was also a important site, with the largest truncated pyramide in all the Central Andes. Why couldn't it be the capital?

Finally, they have identified a common icon in many of the sites in the valley, and have interpreted it as an emblem for the polity. (This type of analysis is used in other regions of the world, as for example in Monte Alban, Mexico, where the history of late periods has been interpreted using the emblems for each city in the region.)

COUNTERFIRE: The Burger's, drawing from their own views on how the Lurin valley worked, doubt that a state-level polity embraced all the sites of the Casma valley.

Using the 'laundry-list' to define state-level societies (originally created by Gordon Childe in his studies in the Near East), the Burger's fail to find evidence for several aspects for them:

  • little evidence of workshops, hence craft  specialization (except for the art in the monuments);
  • little evidence of other occupations than fishing and farming, hence no occupational specialization;
  • no emblems for the polity;
  • the differences in residential architecture in two main groups does not match the similarity in garbage contents from dwellings of both types;
  • in the same line, the two burials found in the two areas have the same type of offerings, hence indicating no class differences. (This line of evidence needs futher research, although this is the same conclusion the Burger's reach with the burial data of the Lurin valley);

The Burger's suggest that high status could have been achieved by a person that is a leader in the society, for example directing religious and building activities. His progeny would not have enjoyed his status. Nevertheless, this person would have received a significantly richer burial. (When status is adscribed, when social classes are set, there will be a different distribution of burial goods, usually infants receiving offerings that they never could have 'obtained' during their lives.) Social classes, three or more tiers, are an essential part of a state-level society.

Other features of a state-level society that do not exist: large population numbers; no writing/recording systems (As shown from the Andean cases of state societies later in time, where no writing system was ever invented -but recording devices were- not all these features have to be present to label a society state, but a great majority of them and developed at a large scale).

So the Burger's see the Casma valley divided in independent and similar polities, that live in their own lands and manage their own water systems (since they find no evidence for large scale works). They doubt that there was a hierarchy of sites all part of a single system; they were just polities of different size, keeping independent.

So the Burger's are not impressed by the monumentality of the buildings of the Casma valley; they keep the same position for the Lurin valley.  As such, they consider then that the complexity in certain features of the occupation of the Casma valley belong to a pre-state society. The Pozorski's insist in conceiving the early monumentality of the Casma valley as an early development of the state in the Andes.

Recently, with the long-term study in the Supe valley, R. Shady, the researcher of Caral, will opt for qualifying the societies that built extensive mound complexes early in the Initial Period as "civilization", assigning to them, although with limited evidence, almost all the features that characterize the state, pushing back in time, in a significant scale, the proposed age of the origin of the state society in the Andes.

Links to other periods
Preceramic Period Formative Period Early Intermediate Period
Middle Horizon Late Intermediate Period Late Horizon
Andean and Tiwanaku Archaeology Page

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