Foundation of Chan Chan

Chan Chan, the capital of the Chimú Empire, ruled the north coast of Peru for several hundred years and established a political and economic administration later used by the Incas. It was the largest city of northern Peru in pre-Inca times, and it developed a high level of artistic achievement and urban planning.

Summary of Event

The ruins of the Chimú city Chan Chan are located on the desert coastal plain of the Pacific at the mouth of the Moche River, about 330 miles (530 kilometers) northwest of Lima. The first king of the Chimú Empire began to build Chan Chan sometime after the fall of the Moche Empire (c. 850), but the city did not begin to flourish until about 1000. [kw]Foundation of Chan Chan (After 850)
[kw]Chan Chan, Foundation of (After 850)
Chan Chan
Chimú Empire
South America;After 850: Foundation of Chan Chan[0970]
Architecture;After 850: Foundation of Chan Chan[0970]
Government and politics;After 850: Foundation of Chan Chan[0970]
Science and technology;After 850: Foundation of Chan Chan[0970]

There were four types of structures that reflected a caste-like social system, a system the Incas used as a model for their own civilization: royal palaces or ciudadelas, elite structures for the nobles, small irregularly agglutinated rooms for commoners, and basic living quarters for laborers brought into the city from other areas of the empire.

The ruins of the city cover 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) and are dominated by ten large, citadel-like enclosures called ciudadelas. The 30-foot-high (9-meter-high) adobe walls are 6 feet (2 meters) wide at the base. Each is orientated on a north-south axis and arranged in roughly a rectangle around the center of the site. The ciudadelas vary in size, but all have a north section, a central section, and a chanchón or wing on the south. This wing was the living quarters of the servants and retainers. A narrow passage led from the one door in the north wall to an audience chamber, a series of courtyards, a reservoir, and a large number of storerooms. Architecture;Chimú Empire

There is a complicated pattern of narrow corridors, courtyards, U-shaped rooms called audiencias (administrative control points), and storerooms. For security reasons, wells and storerooms were in the most interior part of the structure. The storerooms held large quantities of goods and could be reached only by a series of corridors that passed by the audiencias. Open courtyards with benches along one, two, or three sides served as audienca chambers.

Each ciudadela was a royal residence, an administrative center, and bureaucratic headquarters of the Chimú Empire. All ciudadelas contained a royal burial chamber. The Chimú used a system of split-inheritance, which meant the heir to the throne inherited only the position of ruler, not the wealth of the dead king. His wealth was left to other members of the royal family, who lived in the former king’s ciudadela and preserved it as a shrine. The new king had to acquire his own wealth, usually by conquest, and build a new ciudadela.

Another form of structure at Chan Chan is the elite compound. There are thirty-five of them, each enclosed by an adobe wall with only one door leading into a series of narrow corridors. The elite compounds vary in size, number of wells, and internal divisions, or arrangement of rooms. As with ciudadelas, elite compounds had open courtyards with benches, audiencias, wells, and storerooms. Elite compounds did not contain burial chambers.

The nobles who lived in the elite compounds controlled space and especially water, scarce commodities in an urban area. This control gave them status and power just below the king. They were responsible for the distribution of food and other goods and for supervising the labor, called mit’a, required of the commoners, who constructed the structures and irrigation canals of the Chimú Empire.

Adjacent to or near elite compounds were compounds for commoners called small irregularly agglutinated rooms (SIARs). Most of the SIAR compounds were concentrated in the south, west, and northwest sections of the city, but one was in the middle of the city and another along the east side. Both of them were small and isolated without apparent association with other structures and lacking easy access to a well. The centrally located SIAR unit was constructed on an artificial platform. The other SIAR units were associated with elite compounds, wells, or large adobe-walled enclosures thought to be cemeteries. All had easy access to a well. The units seemed to be organized into self-contained wards. Interior walls were less massive than the walls around the compound and showed signs of remodeling, apparently as needs changed.

Rooms within the SIAR included one or more kitchens, work and sleeping rooms, and storage rooms. The storerooms were very small and also held items used in the manufacturing of goods; little food was stored in the SIARs. The inhabitants had to have supplies provided them on a regular basis. Redistribution of goods was a responsibility of the government and was administered by the bureaucracy. All supplies probably came from storerooms in the elite compounds. Refuse was piled in interior rooms or in the alleys between compounds. Over time, as the refuse collected, the ground level in the SIAR rooms and alleys became higher.

SIAR units served as residences for the lower class and were workshops for metalworking, weaving, and woodworking. The quality of the goods, especially gold work, was very high. In some units, llamas and guinea pigs were kept as part of the food supply. The dung was tamped down to form the floor.

Basic housing was provided for a few outsiders, who lived in communal barracks-like buildings constructed by mit’a labor. One of these buildings was located in the southeast corner and the other near the center of the city, in what seems to have been an area set aside for trading. The building had direct access to the main route leading into the center of the city. A group of traders lived in the central building. The other outsiders were probably laborers brought in from the countryside to work on construction projects.

Chan Chan was the center of the political and economic system of the Chimú Empire. The king, the chief political and religious leader, was isolated from the masses in his ciudadela and appeared in public only on special occasions. The nobles who lived in elite compounds were the bureaucrats who administered the king’s business. Control of water, food, space, and conscript labor was the basis of their power.

The Chimú believed in supernatural gods who could become visible to the faithful and be persuaded to help humans who asked for help, but only if the individuals would abstain from salt and pepper and from sexual relations. Religion;Chimú Empire

Chan Chan controlled three administrative cities located in strategic areas of the empire, which extended at the height of its power from northern Peru to Lima but did not extend into the mountains. The administrative centers directed agricultural production and maintained and constructed new irrigation canals. They stored food until it was moved to Chan Chan.

Trade between the various areas of the empire provided a variety of both raw materials and manufactured products. Trade with areas outside the empire was not an important part of the general economy, but it did provide mostly luxury goods for the royal family and the nobles. Trade;Chimú Empire

The Chimú successfully resisted conquest by the Incas until 1465, when Chan Chan finally fell. The king of the Chimú was taken to Cuzco and treated with great honor. His son then governed the Chimú territory as a puppet of the Incas. The city was abandoned shortly after its conquest, perhaps as a result of destruction caused by heavy battering rams.


Chan Chan was the capital of the largest empire that existed before the Inca. It was the seat of an extensive bureaucracy that efficiently controlled a large population and the economy of all the territory of northern Peru. The Incas later copied the Chimú administration, the conscript labor system, the caste-like social structure, and the incorporation of conquered territories into the empire. The economy, based on agriculture, was made possible by the extensive irrigation canal network. The Incas also copied the excellent metalworking and weaving of the Chimú.

Further Reading

  • Kosok, Paul. Life, Land, and Water in Ancient Peru. New York: Long Island University Press, 1965. Discusses how land and water affected the political and economic development of Chan Chan and the Chimú Empire.
  • Lumbreras, Luis G. The Peoples and Cultures of Ancient Peru. Translated by Betty S. Meggers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974. Describes the economic, political, religious, and cultural aspects of the Chimú Empire. Includes several illustrations.
  • Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru. 1992. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Covers the Moche Valley and the development of the Chimú Empire.
  • Moseley, Michael E., and Kent C. Day, eds. Chan Chan: Andean Desert City. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982. A series of articles about the economic, political, territorial, and architectural growth of the Chimú Empire.
  • Pillsbury, Joanne, ed. Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2001. Covers the artistic achievements of the Chimú Empire. Includes bibliography and index.