Peru is best known as the heart of the Inca empire, but it was home to many diverse indigenous cultures long before the Incas arrived. Although there is evidence of human habitation in Peru as long ago as the eighth millennium BC , there is little evidence of organized village life until about 2500 BC. It was at about this time that climatic changes in the coastal regions prompted Peru's early inhabitants to move toward the more fertile interior river valleys. For the next 1500 years, Peruvian civilization developed into a number of organized cultures, including the Chavìn and the Sechìn. The Chavìn are best known for their stylized religious iconography, which included striking figurative depictions of various animals (the jaguar in particular) and which exercised considerable influence over the entire coastal region. The Sechìn are remembered more for their military hegemony than for their cultural achievement.
The decline of the Chavìn and Sechìn cultures around the 5th century BC gave rise to a number of distinctive regional cultures. Some of these, including the Saliner and the Paracas, are celebrated for artistic and technological advances such as kiln-fired ceramics and sophisticated weaving techniques. From the Paracas arose the Nazca, whose legacy includes the immense and cryptic Nazca Lines. However, the accomplish- ments of these and other early Peruvian civilizations seem today to pale in comparison to the robust pre-Columbian civilization of the Inca.
The most startling feature of the great Inca empire was its brevity. In 1430, the realm of the Inca consisted of little more than the river valley around Cusco. Less than a century later, through conquest and a canny policy of incorporating the best features of the societies they subjugated, the Incas controlled a vast territory of almost 1 million square kilometers--a dominion that extended from northwest Argentina to southern Colombia. The Incan capital, at Qosqo, was undoubtedly the richest city in all of the Americas, with temples literally sheathed in heavy gold plate. Although Qosqo's architecture remains only in fragments and foundations, the architectural accomplishment of the Inca's has survived intact at the astounding ceremonial centre of Machu Picchu.
In 1532, at the height of its power, the Inca empire was driven by a war of succession. In one of the great tragedies of history, it was at precisely this moment that Francisco Pizarro and his band of Spanish conquis- tadors arrived on the scene. Showing an uncanny ability to turn circumstances to his own advantage, Pizarro used deception and guile to gain a personal meeting with Atahualpa, the Inca ruler, whom he coolly assassinated. In the face of fierce resistance, Pizarro and his men seized Cusco and sacked the city. Although the Incas continued to fight for the next several years, their empire had ended and Spanish rule had begun.
The inland regions are marked by extreme poverty and subsistence agriculture, while the fertile river valleys of the lowlands have produced a wealthier, more cosmo- politan culture. Almost half of Peru's people are Indian, while another one third or so are mestizo. About ten percent are of European descent, and there are significant African and Asian minorities. Although Spanish is Peru's official language, a multitude of indigenous languages continue to hold sway in the highlands.