Photo of lush mountainous region with tiered platforms cut into landscape

The living landscapes of Peru

By Cecilia Pardo Grau, Peru Project Curator

Publication date: 7 September 2021

Curator Cecilia Pardo Grau examines the different landscapes and environments, as well as the cultures and histories of Peru – from the high peaks of the Andes down to the Pacific coast – to give a glimpse of what's explored in our upcoming exhibition.

The living landscapes of Peru

From its inception just one year ago, Peru: a journey in time has been a unique Anglo-Peruvian collaboration, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with and display the remarkable – and understudied – Peruvian collections at the British Museum.

Covering 3,500 years of history, the show and its objects will tell the story of how ancient Peruvian cultures flourished in some of the most diverse and challenging environments on the planet – from arid deserts along the Pacific coast, to high mountains across the Andes and Amazonian tropical forests.

Read on for a journey through these remarkable terrains and discover Andean peoples' fascinating relationship with the natural world – regarded not as a resource for exploitation, but as a set of living landscapes to be revered and protected while providing for human life.

Remarkable environments

More than 15,000 years ago, people moved to South America from the north and settled in the central Andes, in what we know today as modern Peru. Over time, cultures such as the Chavin, Nasca, Moche and Inca adapted and thrived in one of the richest, most diverse and complex environments of the planet. A single 150km line drawn across Peru from the Pacific coast in the west over the Andes to the Amazon in the east would include more than 106 environmental 'life zones' (habitats), reflecting nearly every known habitat on the planet.

Coast, highlands, and the Amazon

For Andean peoples, nature itself is a living being, sustaining all life. It is woven into shared belief systems, where the natural and supernatural worlds are closely interconnected. Andean objects show divine beings embodying the power of plants and animals, reflecting how these living landscapes respond to the needs of society.

Tunic made from two textiles sewn together with whipping stitch, decorated with painted motifs depicting feathers, concentric circles and border of waves along bottom edge.
Painted cotton tunic, Chancay, Peru, AD 900–1430.

Designs symbolising the three main environments in Peru are represented in objects like this beautiful tunic, painted in cream and brown tones after the textile had been woven. Look for the feathers representing the Amazon, the concentric circles perhaps representing Andean lagoons or cochas, and a running scroll design at the bottom depicting the moving waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Andean pantheon: bird, feline, snake

Two photographs of vessels, on the left a feline, teeth and claws bared, on right, a coiled snake staring forward
(Left) Painted pottery vessel in the shape of a feline, Moche, Peru, 200 BC – AD 500. © Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni. (Right) Painted pottery vessel in the shape of a snake. Moche, Peru, 200 BC – AD 500. © Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest.

Artists produced ceremonial objects depicting elements from the different landscapes, such as birds, felines and snakes: animals that symbolised the sky, earth and underworld. These creatures were central to the Andean worldview and formed part of the pantheon of gods and ancestors.

Birds represented the sky and were a symbol of night-time and war, while felines represented earth and power. Deities and fierce warrior-priests were often shown with the features of owls or other birds of prey, or with feline fangs and tails. Snakes were believed to have the ability to travel to the underworld, where they could access the power of ancestors and connect the realms of past, present and future.

Mountain spirits

The central Andes has some of the highest mountains in the world, commonly reaching 4000m, and at their highest over 6000m. These were hugely important in Andean society.

Painted pottery bottle showing a mountain scene with human-like figures and animals
Painted pottery bottle showing a mountain scene, Moche, Peru, AD 400–700. © Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni.

Still known as apus, or the spirits of the mountains, mountain peaks are believed to have sacred and protective significance. Some sculptural vessels depicted mountains as the setting of supernatural events, ritual sites or as pure landscapes, in versions ranging from the highly naturalistic to more abstract depictions. While some ceramics feature mythological beings watching over ceremonies of ritual sacrifice, others show animals embodying sacred attributes as they emerge from the mountains, as if travelling between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

The treasures from the Pacific Ocean

The Humboldt Current runs off the Peruvian coast in the Pacific Ocean and is one of the richest marine environments in the world. It has always been very important for Andean societies.

A brown vessel with a human figure around the handle who is holding an oar.
Painted pottery vessel depicting a fisherman in a reed boat. Moche, Peru, AD 100–800. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Inv. No. 17582.

The cold current comes from the south and flows in the direction of the equator. It is often countered by El Niño events, also known as ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) – climatic anomalies that occur periodically with the heating of the Pacific Ocean. They bring hot weather from the north, and have been the cause of major environmental disruptions, such as heavy rains and floods, for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that ENSO events were already happening in Peru as early as the Moche period (AD 100–800). These climatic shifts have had a profound impact on Andean peoples over time, forcing them to constantly adapt to these challenging environments.

Spondylus shells

Commonly known as the thorny oyster, Spondylus is a spiny bivalve with unique colour tonalities ranging from white to orange, red and purple. In South America, the main known species are Spondylus princeps and Spondylus calcifer. Valued in central Andean societies as highly as gold and silver, they are found off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, but move southwards with the El Niño climate-warming event that occurs about every four years, helping to give them a special meaning within Andean societies.

Pottery bottle with shells standing upright around neck
Pottery vessel depicting Spondylus shells. Chimu, Peru, AD 900–1470. © Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni.

Divers were trained to remain underwater for an extended period of time to collect these sacred offerings from the sea, which normally dwell 15 to 30 metres below sea level. Warm water would also bring rains, vital for agrarian societies living in coastal deserts. Recent studies suggest that the flesh of the Spondylus would act as a hallucinogenic substance that Andean peoples would consume so that they could interact with their ancestors in the spiritual realm.

Nasca geoglyphs

The landscape of Nasca has a particular feature that differentiates it from other coastal regions. This is an area of the Andes where a coastal cordillera (a coastal mountain range) runs across the region, from north to south.

Thousands of years ago, because of erosion caused by rivers, the depression between the cordillera and the Andes filled with rounded boulders and finer sediments, creating a vast plain commonly known as pampas. These pampas were crossed by rivers fed by seasonal rainfall coming from the Andes, forming coastal valleys that could be used for agriculture through the implementation of irrigation systems. The peoples of Nasca conceived their desert landscapes as an enormous blank canvas on which hundreds of huge figurative linear drawings could be created between the 60 kilometres of Pacific Ocean coastline and the foothills of the Andean mountains.

Nasca geoglyph depicting a hummingbird. © Estudio Casabonne.

Evidence of human activity has been found here, including the discovery of ceramics, offerings and the possible remains of roofs and other elements that reveal living spaces where the inhabitants of Nasca came to worship their gods as part of their permanent search for water and fertility. Lines converging on special mounds indicate spaces where the population would gather to carry out key ceremonies.

Some Nasca art gives us a sense of how these celebrations might have taken place. One ceramic object, discovered by renowned Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello during the 1920s, depicts a procession scene comprised of five dressed human figures holding offerings and musical instruments, accompanied by five dogs. Birds from the rainforest are also depicted, hinting at an advanced trade network spanning to the Amazon. Tello associated this image with the pilgrimages that might have taken place in the Palpa and Nasca pampas.

Andean landscapes today

The passing down of environmental knowledge for thousands of years has enabled people to live in the highest inhabited settlements in the world right up until today. Employing agricultural techniques introduced by ancient cultures and passed down through the generations, people have been able to grow foods with expert knowledge gained over millennia.

Man seated on earth holding vegetables, mountains in background
Manuel Choqque. © Estudio Casabonne.

Cusco farmer Manuel Choqque has been applying traditional techniques inherited from the Incas for growing maize, beans and potatoes – a legacy he has taken the responsibility to keep alive, preserving and teaching the techniques to younger generations.

Peru: a journey in time ran from 11 November 2021 – 20 February 2022.

Buy the beautifully illustrated exhibition book to take a deeper dive into the world of Peru.

Supported by PROMPERÚ

Organised with the Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru