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Ancient Coastal Cultures of Peru: People and Animals at the Edge of the Pacific Ocean


Many ancient cultures inhabited the Andean region long before the Inka established their vast empire in Peru and beyond. Of these, the Nasca and the Chimu both made the coastal area along the Pacific Ocean their homeland, and thrived there despite the desert environment of this region. These two cultures shared similar ecological zones, and similar concerns for survival in the arid vastness of the desert. However, they did not overlap in time or space. The Nasca are an Early Intermediate Period culture that lived on the southern coast of Peru between roughly 200 BCE and 600 CE in the same area previously home to the Paracas culture. The Chimu are a Late Intermediate Period culture on the north coast of Peru that emerged around 900 CE from their Moche predecessors from whom they inherited aspects of their arts, and also incorporated elements of the visual culture of their Sicán neighbors. In the 1470s, the Chimu became part of the empire of the Inka, who incorporated many of the artistic traditions of the Chimu along with the deep heritage of many of the preceding northern coastal cultures. Despite never knowing each other, the Nasca and the Chimu produced complex ceramics that share similar themes, but expressed them through very different form. The Nasca excelled at representing the natural world and the humans inhabiting it by painting with earthen slips in a wide range of colors on shapes that are often simple bowls or globular vessels with two spouts and a handle. The Chimu, on the other hand, specialized in monochromatic black surfaces, but even without color, they created realistic ceramic portraits of elements of the natural world in highly sculptural vessels, monumentalizing in particular agricultural crops and the animals of the land and the sea that they depended on for food, fibers for textiles, and for the transport of goods.