Peru History

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

Cradle of Civilization

The Fertile Crescent is traditionally seen as the birthplace of civilization, and there's a fair deal going for that theory. However, current archaeological evidence suggests that civilization arose in multiple regions at around the same time, including the Andes Mountains. The Norte Chico developed urban settlements in Peru as early as 3200 B.C.E.; unlike other early civilizations the Norte Chico built a fairly dense urban landscape, with many cities concentrated in just a few river basins. The Norte Chico haven't left the same visual arts legacy as other ancient civilizations, surviving artifacts indicate that they had impressive architectural accomplishments and a major textile industry.

The Four Regions

There were many notable cultures that ebbed and flowed before the Spanish conquest of Peru, but the most famous of these hands-down is the Inca. The Inca Empire, or Tawantin Suyu (Four Regions in Quechua), was one of the largest unified nations in the world. The empire was remarkably wealthy and organized. Inca roads connected much of the Andes, administrators kept regular censuses, and despite lacking a uniform currency or market system the Inca economy grew to substantial heights. The Tawantin Suyu included the entire west coast of South America from southern Colombia to central Chile, all run from the capital of Kuzco in Peru. 

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Inca Empire is that they reached such uncontestable levels of growth and success without many technologies that many European scholars considered essential for civilization. The Inca didn't have wheeled vehicles, didn't have pack animals, didn't have access to iron, and they didn't have a system of writing. Traditional Western ideas of progress have often mischaracterized these qualities as barbaric or undeveloped, but the Inca were among the best administered societies in the world at their peak.

For empire-wide record keeping they used a complex tool called a Quipu, which encoded numerical data in knots on string. This included taking census figures, making trade agreements, recording historical events, and performing involved math functions. Several hundred quipu exist in the world still today, mostly in museum collections around the world. Many scholars are working hard to decipher the knots in hopes of giving us a clearer image of the empire. 

The Conquest of New Castile

By the 1530s, Spanish explorers had learned about the immense wealth of the Inca. Much like they had in Mexico, the Spanish aimed to to expand the crown's coffers by conquering the local government, assuming control of the labor force, and exploiting the region's developed economy. To the serendipity of the Spanish conquistadors, the Inca were in a similar state of political upheaval as the Aztecs had been. The nation's ruler, the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, had died. He left the kingdom of Quito to his favorite (younger) son Atahualpa, and the rest of the empire to his older son Huáscar. The younger son declared himself emperor and went to war. 

The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1531 to conquer the country and create the viceroyalty of New Castile. The brothers' conflict weakened central authority and crippled the country's ability to respond to the oncoming crisis. What's more, many local elites actively invited the Spanish as a means of toppling their political rivals. Early in the conquest, Pizarro found his way to Atahualpa. The prince agreed to parley with the Spaniards, and took a small handful of troops to meet Pizarro. The Spanish demanded that the Inca submit to Spanish authority. Unsurprisingly, Atahualpa refused. Upon the refusal, Pizarro kidnapped him and held him for ransom. When the ransom was paid he continued to hold Atahualpa prisoner. The Spanish coordinated Huáscar's assassination, which they blamed on the younger brother. By this point, the central administration was in disarray, and the Spanish quickly assumed control. They executed Atahualpa in 1533, charging him with various crimes (including his brother's murder). Some of the Inca would retreat further into the mountains, where they would resist Spanish rule for another forty years.

Colonial Rule

The early years of colonial rule in Peru echoed the years immediately before. The Spanish leaders in the new colony fought and schemed against each other. Pizarro's rivalry with another conquistador, Diego de Almagro I, escalated into armed conflict. Pizarro had Almagro executed in 1538. In 1541 Pizarro himself was assassinated by supporters of Diego Almagro II, who was in turn defeated in battle and executed by the new Spanish governor of New Castile. 

After the fighting stopped, New Castile would become the largest and most important colony in the Spanish Empire. One of the most inspired (and cruel) moves by the Spanish colonial government was their continuation of Inca gold and silver mining. Rather than a market system, the Inca economy was structured around a complex system of labor obligations to the empire (meaning people would do labor for the empire and then have their needs met, rather than an exchange of value for labor and value for goods). The Spanish simply slotted themselves into this existing structure to coerce unpaid labor out of the native amerindian populations. This quickly evolved into unabashed slavery, and when the native populations died out they were replaced by imported African slaves. The colony grew incredibly wealthy and vast, prompting the crown to eventually break it up into numerous parts (which would become many of the countries of South America today).  

Independence from Spain

Peru proclaimed its independence, but the Spanish were not finally defeated until 1824. For a hundred years thereafter, revolutions were frequent; a new war was fought with Spain in 1864–1866, and an unsuccessful war was fought with Chile from 1879 to 1883 (the War of the Pacific).

Peru emerged from 20 years of dictatorship in 1945 with the inauguration of President José Luis Bustamente y Rivero after the first free election in many decades. But he served for only three years and was succeeded in turn by Gen. Manuel A. Odria, Manuel Prado y Ugarteche, and Fernando Belaúnde Terry. On Oct. 3, 1968, Belaúnde was overthrown by Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado. In 1975, Velasco was replaced in a bloodless coup by his prime minister, Gen. Francisco Morales Bermudez, who promised to restore civilian government. In elections held on May 18, 1980, Belaúnde Terry, the last civilian president, was elected president again.

The Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, began their brutal campaign to overthrow the government in 1980. The military's subsequent crackdown led to further civilian human rights abuses and disappearances. A smaller rebel group, Tupac Amaru, also fought against the government. About 69,000 people were killed during the 1980–2000 wars between rebel groups and the government. The deaths were carried out by the rebels (54%) as well as the military (30%); other militias were responsible for the remainder.

A New Era of Government

Peru's fragile democracy survived. In 1985, Belaúnde Terry was the first elected president to turn over power to a constitutionally elected successor since 1945. Alberto Fujimori won the 1990 elections. Citing continuing terrorism, drug trafficking, and corruption, Fujimori dissolved Congress, suspended the constitution, and imposed censorship in April 1992. By September, all but Shining Path had been vanquished. A new constitution was approved in 1993.

Fujimori was reelected in 1995 and again in May 2000 to a third five-year term, after his opponent, Alejandro Toledo, withdrew from the contest, charging fraud. In Sept. 2000, Fujimori's intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, was videotaped bribing a congressman. Fujimori announced he would dismantle the powerful National Intelligence Service, which has been accused of human rights violations. Two months later, he stunned his nation by resigning during a trip to Japan. Revelations that Fujimori secretly held Japanese citizenship—and could not be extradited to face corruption charges—enraged the populace.