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Ancient South American civilizations

The “New World” was around long before Europeans set sail. South America civilization dates back to 3000 BC, the same time period ancient cities were rising in Egypt, China and India. A BBC Miniseries called “Lost Kingdoms of South America” recently highlighted four of these mysterious cultures in four hour-long episodes. Those in the UK can watch the full episodes here, but for everyone else, here’s what you missed.

People of the Clouds: Chachapoyas

More than 500 years before the Inca Empire, a powerful culture developed in Peru’s northern highlands. Known as a fierce warrior community, the Chachapoyas controlled a lush, mountainous area of 10,000 square miles. They built hundreds of circular structures on top of mountains, which may be where they got their name, which means “people of the clouds.” They left behind no written language, so archaeologists rely on burial artifacts for clues about the culture. The most remarkable remains are found in cliff-side tombs, accessible only by a steep and skilled climb up, or careful repel down, and with government permission. Many of the tombs have been raided. The most impressive ruin left behind by the Chachapoyas culture is the fortress Kuelpa, with 40-foot high walls enclosing 400 round buildings.


The Stone at the Center: Tiwanaku

Archeologists don’t know what happened to the once thriving Tiwanaku culture. When the Incas stumbled upon it they found only ruins; the society had collapsed sometime during the 11th or 12th century. During the height of its influence, the Tiwanaku Empire covered parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. It grew from a small substance settlement with non-irrigated crops—such as potatoes and quinoa—to a large society with an ingenious irrigation system that allowed them to cultivate crops in high altitudes at harsh conditions. The most impressive ruins left behind are located on the Bolivia side of Lake Titicaca.


Photo - Benjamin Dumas

Lands of Gold: Muisca

Conquistadores sailed to Latin America seeking riches, and they found them. They encountered local cultures that used gold to venerate the gods, covering the walls of their temples and palaces in sheet gold, and dressing leaders in the metal to inspire awe. Despite these riches, the Spaniards wanted more. Rumors of a city of gold hidden deep in the Andes reached greedy ears, and Europeans searched in vain for this El Dorado, which means “the gilded one.” The rumors likely came from the Colombia Muisca culture. In what is now Colombia, the Muisca culture was more of a loose confederation of various societies. In one religious ceremony, the chieftain would cover himself in gold dust and throw gold ornaments and jewels into Lake Guatavita to honor an underwater gold.


Kingdom of the Desert: Chimu

The coastal strip of Peru between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes is barren desert. It was here the Chimu culture built their capital city of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas. At its peak it housed around 600,000 people, including an elite bureaucracy, while the entirety of the Kingdom of Chimor encompassed 620 miles (1,000 km) of costal land. The Chimu culture developed from 900 AD until 1470 AD, when it was conquered by the Inca Empire. Numerous bodies have been found in Chimu cities, leading archeologists to believe they practiced human sacrifice, perhaps in attempt to prevent the adverse effect of El Nino which periodically would devastate the city.


Interested in visiting one of these cities or learning more about ancient South American cultures and societies? Speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.

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