What We Learned About Pre-Columbian Andean Cultures in Peru

During our two-week organized tour through Peru with a group of Austrian philosophy and history enthusiasts we learned a lot about pre-Columbian cultures of the Andes. In this post we would like to summarize a few main concepts that seem to transcend time and geography in Peru and the Andes region. These cosmological concepts and principles are so universal that once you know them, you see them everywhere in Peru, often even in modern life.

We need to mention one caveat though before we start: Different to places like Egypt or Mexico for instance, there are no written sources of the time in the Andes before the Spanish arrived. There are however murals, pottery and woven textiles with complicated patterns that seem to convey stories. This means that a lot of what researchers know about these old cultures is still (and might forever be) speculation and subject for debate. Ancient South America is theory crafter heaven. On the positive side this makes everything a bit more mystic and exciting to explore! 🙂

In this post we will explore the following concepts and principles:

  • Principle of Duality
  • Concept of Three Worlds
  • Principle of Reciprocity
  • Importance of symbolism

Principle of Duality

Not unlike the more well known concept of Ying & Yang in East Asia, the Principle of Duality is all about creating harmony between two opposing elements. Classic examples of this include:

  • Day & night
  • Sun & moon
  • Female & male
  • Rain & dry season
  • Black & white

These opposing sides are always complementary and one could not exist without another. This principle was so important that people went to great lengths to visualize it everywhere. A lot of ancient jewelry and metalwork is gold and silver for instance. An incredible example are the black and white stairs that lead to the temple in Chavín, see image below. Two different stones were used to show the different colors, with neither type of stone being available in the area. This means that showing the Principle of Duality was important enough to carry heavy stones (ancient South America did not discover the wheel) over great distances “just” to create black and white stairs.

Black & white stairs in front of the temple in Chavin – a typical symbol of duality

Belief of Three Worlds

Similar to many other belief systems, in ancient Peru we can find the ubiquitous belief that there are three worlds:

  • Underworld or Hurin Pacha – represented by the snake. It is a place where the ancestors dwell and also the seat of our lower emotions. Hurin Pacha should not, however, be confused with hell. It is not a place of punishment.
  • The world we humans live in or Kai Pacha – represented by the puma.
  • The upper world or Hana Pacha – represented by the condor. Here we find elaborate ideas and intelligence, connections to the Cosmos and zodiacs, etc…

It was believed that shamans could make journeys into the under and upper world and establish communications between them. The three worlds are often represented as three stairs or in their animal form. The puma appears already in the earliest Peruvian cultures, like in Chavin.

A large symbol in Chan Chan – this represents both the three worlds (three steps) as well as duality
A shaman journey of turning into a Puma – Museum of Chavín
Main Moche deity Ai-Apec with typical puma teeth

Principle of Reciprocity

This fancy sounding word basically means that before you take something, you have to give something. This can take many forms including but by far not limited to the following examples:

  • Sacrifices to gods in order to e.g. bring or stop rain, improve harvest, gain entry to a temple etc… This could include sacrificing food, animals or in some cases also humans
  • Helping each other out. There are stories from Inca farmers who, once they were done with their own field, helped out their neighbors to finish theirs.
  • In modern life people in close communities support each other. When I was on a tour through a pueblo joven in Lima I was told some stories about this. One example: when someone needs money to continue to build their house they organize a big event to cook for their whole neighborhood. People then support by either helping to cook or by buying the food. They know that whenever they need money, others would do the same…
Modern form of reciprocity – I was told a neighbor is helping out completing this wall in a pueblo joven in Lima

Importance of symbolism

One of the most important symbols of ancient Andean cultures is the “Chakana” or “Andean Cross”– see image below. It can be found in most sacred locations as well as many different sites in modern Peru (and Bolivia). Again, a lot of the interpretation is based on speculation but a few aspects seem plausible. The three steps seem to represent the three different worlds, see above. The four sides seem to correspond to the four cardinal points. The center most probably represents the source of the universe, where everything came from.

Chakana on the floor next to a souvenir shop in Puno, next to Titicaca Lake

Gold and silver are also worth mentioning, since in pre-Columbian Peru these metals were used as a sacred symbol and not as a means of payment or storage of wealth. Gold represented the sun, silver the moon. In accordance with the Principle of Duality, both were often used together.

To give an everyday life example: The upper class used to wear a lot of gold to show their connection with the sun god. We were told hilarious stories about how the Spanish were surprised by all the gold that was visible everywhere in places such as Cusco. In Spain all the gold was hidden due to fear of theft.

Señor de Sípan wearing a gold/silver peanut necklace, also perfectly relating to the Principle of Duality

To put everything in a nutshell, there is a lot more to Peru than the Incas. Inca culture was only a brief period in Peruvian history before the Spanish conquest. Furthermore, the Inca Empire built upon the cosmological ideas of the people and cultures that came before them.

Concrete practices in ancient Peru remain shrouded in mystery and speculation. Nevertheless, ancient ideas of thinking about the world have survived until today. More will hopefully be discovered in the future….

To conclude this article we include a good overview of the different cultures we refer to – we took the following picture in Museo Larco in Lima:

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