Wednesday, August 14, 2013

History mystery: Chanchan, A target of the Inca conquest

On the northern coast of Peru, a field of ruins stretches as far as the eye can see. This was Chanchan, capital of the Chimu, which fell to the Incas only decades before the Incas themselves perished under the swords of the Spanish conquistadores. When the spaniards defeated the incas in the 16th century, they inherited the remains of more than one civilization. Inca Peru, also an empire of conquest, embraced many different societies. But the Incas extinguished earlier traditions as mercilessly as the Spaniards were to crush their own, and many of the cultures that rose and fell in the Andes and its fringes are shrouded in mystery. The first major culture to arise in Peru was that of the Chavin, around 1000 BC. Others followed: the Paracas of central Peru, who mummified their dead and wrapped them in magnificent fabrics; the Moche of the northern coast, who were great builders and goldsmiths.

Farther south, the mysterious Nazca culture emerged round AD 500, leaving behind a fantastic network of designs – birds, spiders, and geometric figures – indelibly scored across the desolate southern plains. By about AD 1000, the culture of the upland Tiwanaku people dominated much of Peru, which now enjoyed a rich cultural heritage. Among the civilizations that built on this heritage, none was more impressive than Chimor, the kingdom of the Chimu, ruled from the city of Chanchan. A handful of legends collected by Spanish chroniclers have survived through the centuries to explain the origin of Chimor. The tales centre on the semi-mythical hero Taycanamo, founder of the Chimu royal dynasty. Taycanamo, so the stories say, arrived in the Moche valley on a raft as an envoy from a great lord beyond the seas. He brought with him a magical yellow powder – probably gold dust. He built a palace, learned the language, and was eventually recognized by the locals as their chief.

Taycanamo is said to have founded his dynasty in about 1300, but archaeology has shown that Chanchan, the Chimu capital, dates back to an earlier period. The site is thought to have been settled as far back as 800 BC, and monumental construction began in about AD 850. But it was not until the Taycanamon dynasty that the city became the wonder of its contemporaries. Taycanamo’s dynasty continued through nine more kings. His immediate successors conquered the whole of the Moche and six other valleys. But the empire reached its peak under the last monarch, Minchan-saman. In the mid-15th century, when the Incas were expanding southwards from their capital at Cuzco in the central highlands, Minchan-saman brought the valleys of the central coastlands within the fold of Chimor.

The kingdom now stretched along 960km (596 miles) of coast, from Tumbes in the north to a point near present-day Lima. Chanchan was even larger than Cuzco. It covered about 20km2 (7½ sq miles), and supported 40,000 people. With its workshops, factories, warehouses, and temples, it was the hub of Chimu trade, religion, and administration. The heart of the city was dominated by ten great enclosures, with tapering walls ranging from 7.5m to 9m (24½ft to 29½ft) high. Each enclosure conformed to the same rectangular plan, with a single, narrow entrance in the north wall and an interior divided into three sections: north, central, and south. The north and central sections contained living quarters, kitchens, audience chambers, courtyards, colonnades, storage areas, and water tanks. The southern sections often contained a mound or platform. When archaeologists excavated one of these mounds in 1969, they uncovered the remains of almost 100 young women. They had been sacrificed – perhaps by poison. In the centre, they found a T-shaped tomb and burial offerings. What purpose did the enclosures serve? There were ten such structures, built one after another – and ten kings in the dynasty of Taycanamo. The generally accepted theory is that each king constructed an enclosure as his own royal residence. After death, it would have served as a shrine devoted to his worship, and his heir would then build his own complex. The royal enclosures were built with a combination of clay and sun-dried mud bricks, as were the city’s houses, storage areas, and colonnades, which were roofed with reeds, straw, and clay. Clay friezes of geometric motifs, animals, and various mythological monsters decorated the walls. The reliefs often depict sea-birds, fish, starfish, and crustaceans. Chanchan was close to the sea, and the ebb and swell of the Pacific must have been constantly in the minds of its inhabitants. The ocean was a divinity known as Ni, worshipped by casting offerings of maize and red ochre into the waves. Around the outskirts of the citadels were humble dwellings made of cane. Two depressions at each end of the city appear to have been planted with gardens, and water was supplied to areas that needed it by a system of irrigation channels. A pyramid complex, probably a temple compound, stood just outside the city. This way not an innovation of Chimu society – flat-topped pyramids had existed in Peru as early as the 2nd millennium BC.