Lima Culture Flourishes on the Central Andean Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When Aymara invaders settled in the river valleys of central Peru, they laid the foundation, through their Lima culture, for the demographic and economic transformation of the central coast and developed the Pachacámac shrine.

Summary of Event

In the second century c.e., the Lima culture emerged in the Lurín, Rimac, and Chillón River Valleys of the central Peruvian coast. The area had previously come under the influence of the Chavín culture as it spread its religious and artistic influences over much of northern and central Peru. With the collapse of the Chavín, however, Aymara immigrants moved to the central coast, perhaps as invaders. These newcomers established the Lima culture, which bore linguistic, technological, and ceramic similarities to the Aymara altiplano (high plateau). The Lima rulers, probably a warrior elite, dominated the region’s indigenous population. They built huacas, or shrines, with accompanying towns at Copacabana in the Chillón valley, Caxamarquilla and Maranga (probably the political center) along the Rimac, and Ychma (later to be known as Pachacámac, the ceremonial center dedicated to the worship of Pacha Kamaq) near the Lurín River.

Lima culture is marked by the adobe pyramids (the Temple of Cerro Culebras and the Trujillo Huaca) with surrounding auxiliary buildings; roads to facilitate trade and pilgrimages; thick, somewhat crude Playa Grande and Maranga ceramics, with red, black, and white decorations that sometimes depicted interlocking animals or persons; finer ceramics with a highly polished orange tint; textiles, often painted rather than made with dyed yarn; and very primitive metallurgy. The culture’s burials demonstrated its belief in an afterlife. During the early Lima period, the deceased were laid out on stretchers for burial, and wives and servants of the elite were often killed and buried with them. As the culture reached maturity (c. 500 c.e.), that practice was replaced by the burial of figurines representing those who in earlier centuries had been sacrificed to serve the lords in the afterlife.

Although heavily influenced by religion, Lima culture appears to have been more secular than the culture that had flourished during the Chavín period. Along the arid coast, the need for extensive irrigation systems to grow crops of maize, beans, and peanuts required further political organization. Canals and dams diverted the rivers and spread life-giving water over the parched coastal lands. Food surpluses permitted part of the population to specialize in nonagricultural tasks. Some limeño towns lacked important shrines or temple complexes, although the region had major huacas, particularly that at Ychma where the god Pacha Kamaq gained widespread fame as an oracle (the site may have initially been a shrine to Kon, an earlier creator deity).

The Lima culture lasted until c. 800 c.e., when it suddenly disappeared as a result of its conquest by the Wari. During the Wari or Middle Horizon period, the central coast underwent a dramatic transformation. Towns grew (Cajamarquilla preserves the most evidence of Wari occupation), and interregional trade flourished, with large warehouse complexes built to store food and other goods. The limeña region became a commercial entrepot between the population centers of the Pacific coast and the Andean highlands. With the Wari as the elite, social stratification grew. Burials practices changed; the deceased was interred in a seated position, with the knees drawn up against the chest and the body wrapped in textiles much superior in quality to those produced by the limeños. The Wari promoted the worship of Viracocha, their creator deity, but this seemed also to increase the influence of the Pacha Kamaq cult. Coastal peoples perhaps conflated the two deities. By this time, the ceremonial center of Ychma had become known as Pachacámac, in recognition of the creator/earthquake deity and oracle worshiped there. The Wari period ended c. 1100, perhaps when economic malaise in the Andes undermined the commerce on which the central coast depended. Wari Cajamarquilla declined, replaced by Pachacámac as the region’s major center. In fact, Pachacámac flourished despite Wari despotism and political centralism.


Pachacámac continued to prosper, even when the Incas conquered the central coast in the fifteenth century. Pacha Kamaq’s great shrine became a political tool. To augment his power and legitimacy, Topa Inca Yupanqui aligned himself with the Pachacámac huaca. In part, he did this to gain allies in his military campaign against the Chimu peoples to the north. According to some accounts, Topa’s mother, while pregnant with him, had a vision that Pacha Kamaq was the creator deity. Consequently, when Topa Inca gained power, he lavished gifts and prestige on Pachacámac. Topa Inca built a great pyramid to the Sun at Pachacámac, near the ancient shrine of Pachacámac. He also established affiliated huacas for the worship of Pacha Kamaq elsewhere in the Andes, as the god allegedly directed him. Some of these lay in unconquered areas and consequently gave Topa Inca a means to begin the political penetration of those regions in a religious guise. Of course, these branch huacas also provided the priests of Pachacámac with a means of extending their influence and garnering more sacrificial offerings. Topa Inca’s actions probably also reveal the Incas’ inability to impose their owns gods completely on the coastal peoples and to suppress the Pacha Kamaq cult.

After the death of Topa Inca (c. 1493) and the succession to power of Huayna Capac, the great huaca at Pachacámac remained tremendously influential. Andeans from distant regions knew of the creator deity, and many traveled to Pachacámac as pilgrims, bringing sacrificial offerings with them. Pacha Kamaq was revered as a powerful oracle, consulted by rulers and commoners alike. When Huayna Capac fell ill in the mid-1520’s, he sought advice from Pachacámac shortly before dying. During the civil war that followed Huayna Capac’s unexpected death (c. 1525), the oracle incorrectly predicted the triumph of Huascar, whose mother belonged to the panaca (royal clan) founded by Topa Inca.

Thus, when the Spaniards invaded, took Huascar’s rival Atahualpa prisoner at Cajamarca in 1532, and demanded gold and silver, Atahualpa sent them to Pachacámac to plunder its riches. Miguel de Estete accompanied Hernando Pizarro to Pachacámac and described the oracle. Pilgrims, he noted, came from great distances bearing rich gifts to seek the oracle’s advice. On arrival they made their petitions to the priests, who insisted the pilgrims fast and abstain from sexual relations for weeks before their questions were presented to the god. Only Pacha Kamaq’s priests dared enter the sanctuary itself. The Spaniards wanted gold, not oracular divinations, and forced their way into the sanctuary. Opening a jewel-encrusted door into a dark, foul-smelling room, they found the wooden idol, which to them was the devil. Offerings of gold, silver, and cloth lay about the sanctuary. The carved wood idol had two faces representing Pacha Kamaq’s dual nature: sometimes blessing his worshipers with bountiful harvests and good health but also causing earthquakes, floods, and tidal waves. Pizarro ordered the sanctuary destroyed, and two years later, the Spaniards founded their capital, the city of the kings (Lima), a few miles to the north of the ancient huaca.

By the eighteenth century, the huaca of Pacha Kamaq was in ruins, through abandonment and depredations caused by grave robbers seeking treasures. Max Uhle initiated the first serious archaeological excavations there in the late 1800’s. Peru declared it a national monument in 1929.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. A seventeenth century Spanish priest describes Pachacámac’s oracular function and displays Catholic prejudices regarding Andean huacas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keatinge, Richard W. Peruvian Prehistory: An Overview of Pre-Inca and Inca Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A general survey of cultural development in the Andes before the Spaniards’ arrival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lumbreras, Luis G. The Peoples and Cultures of Ancient Peru. Translated by Betty J. Meggers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974. A summary of pre-Hispanic Peru, with some attention given to developments along the central coast.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacCormack, Sabine. Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Describes the cult of Pacha Kamaq and Spanish interpretations of it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, Thomas C. “Pachacámac: An Andean Oracle Under Inca Rule.” In Recent Studies in Andean Prehistory and Protohistory, edited by D. Peter Kvietok and Daniel H. Sandweiss. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Latin American Studies Program, 1983. Insightful analysis of how the Inca rulers and the priests of Pachacámac used each other for political and religious ends.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. History of the Inca Realm. Translated by Harry B. Iceland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Shows how the central coastal populations and the great shrine of Pachacámac fit into the Inca realm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Uhle, Max. Pachacámac: A Reprint of the 1903 Edition. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 1991. Sometimes called the father of Peruvian archaeology, Uhle undertook the first excavations at Pachacámac.

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