On the northern coast of Peru lies a captivating archaeological wonder – Chan Chan, considered the largest adobe city in the Americas and the second in the world. This archaeological marvel is the largest pre-Columbian city in South America, and was once the esteemed capital of the Chimor empire from 900 to 1470 CE.
The location’s proximity to both Huanchaco and Trujillo makes it convenient for travelers to access, adding to the allure of this remarkable ancient site. In this article, we embark on a journey through time, unearthing the rich history of this awe-inspiring site and the enigmatic people who crafted it.
You will read the story of the Chimu Civilization and how they thrived along the Peruvian coast, culminating in the magnificent creation of Chan Chan. From the ciudadelas, grand architectural masterpieces housing the royalty, to the small workshops where artisans crafted their creations, every corner of Chan Chan holds secrets waiting to be unveiled.
Moreover, we’ll delve into the history and the engineering marvels of the Chimu, who ingeniously controlled land and water through sophisticated irrigation systems, thriving in an otherwise arid landscape. We’ll also explore the nearby Chimu sites, adding further layers of intrigue to this ancient tale.
Join us as we unravel the enigmatic world of Chan Chan and the enduring legacy of the Chimu Civilization, where history, art, and culture intertwine to paint a vivid picture of an ancient empire that shaped the course of South American history.
Chan Chan archeological zone location and climate
The ancient city of Chan Chan, is located in the Moche Valley on the north coast of Peru. Positioned between the popular resort of Huanchaco and the city of Trujillo, capital of the department of La Libertad, Chan Chan lies less than 1 kilometer from the sea.
Travelers heading to Chan Chan can easily reach the site from Trujillo, which is approximately 560 kilometers (350 miles) north of Lima. To get there, one can take a bus to Huanchaco. Informing the bus driver that you intend to visit Chan Chan will ensure you get off at the appropriate stop parallel to the archaeological park.
The Chan Chan archaeological zone enjoys a desert climate with sunny and pleasant weather throughout the year, thanks to the influence of the Humboldt Current. The adobe city experiences warm days and mild nights, as the sea breeze moderates temperatures.
The average temperature hovers around 18 °C (64 °F), with winter and summer extremes ranging from 17 to 28 °C (63 to 82 °F). Rainfall is infrequent, typically occurring in light and sporadic showers during the afternoon or evening.
Chan Chan relies heavily on surface runoff from the Andes as its primary source of nonsalted water due to the scarcity of rainfall in the region. The rivers originating from the Andes bring valuable water to the city, enabling the implementation of sophisticated irrigation systems for effective land and water management.
Located close to the Andes and their foothills, Chan Chan benefits from the convergence of moist air from the Amazon region with the sea breezes, especially during the summer. This combination results in a higher frequency of light showers, particularly in the parts of the site near the sea. Morning haze can be observed in these coastal areas.
During El Niño events, the climate may vary, with changes in rainfall patterns, although the impact is less intense than in regions to the north of Chan Chan. Overall, the archaeological site’s climate provides a pleasant environment for visitors to explore its historical treasures year-round.
History of Chan Chan
Chan Chan, the ancient city on the north coast of Peru, holds a rich history dating back to around 850 AD when it was constructed by the Chimú civilization. As the capital of the Chimor empire, it thrived with an estimated population of 40,000 to 60,000 inhabitants.
The name “Chan Chan” is believed to originate from the Quingnam language, possibly meaning “Sun-Sun” or “Great Sun,” while another theory suggests it may refer to the “House of the Moon,” highlighting the Moon as the main deity.
Under the rule of Tacaynamo, the first sovereign of Chan Chan, and his descendants, the city witnessed prosperity and stability. However, its fate changed when Túpac Yupanqui, the Inca emperor, besieged the city in 1470.
The aqueducts that supplied water were destroyed, causing a decline in population to around 5,000 – 10,000 people. Huayna Cápac, another Inca ruler, further weakened Chan Chan around 1500 when he partially sacked and burned the city during a rebellion.
After the Inca conquest, Chan Chan faced challenges due to the “Mitma system of ethnic dispersion,” which dispersed the Chimú civilians into other Inca-controlled areas. By 1535, when Francisco Pizarro established the Spanish city of Trujillo nearby, Chan Chan’s prominence faded further.
While no longer a bustling capital, the city was renowned for its wealth, which attracted looting by the Spaniards. In the 16th century, a burial tomb in Chan Chan yielded treasures equivalent to 80,000 pesos of gold, a fortune valued at nearly $5,000,000 in modern terms.
Only in the 19th century, during the scientific revival, did this city garner academic attention. Eminent travelers such as Rivero, Tschudi, Hutchinson, Middendorf, and Bandelier meticulously studied, mapped, and documented the site, intrigued by its origins and the lives of its ancient inhabitants.
In the late 20th century, extensive excavations led by Michael Moseley and Carol J. Mackey began to unravel the mysteries of Chan Chan’s past, conducted under the supervision of the Peruvian Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
In recognition of its historical significance, UNESCO designated Chan Chan as a World Heritage Site in 1986. However, the site was also added to the List of World Heritage in Danger due to concerns about conservation, restoration, management, and the ongoing threat of plundering.
The Chimu Civilization
The Chimu Civilization, also known as the Kingdom of Chimor or Chimú Empire, emerged around 900 CE, succeeding the Moche culture on Peru’s north coast. It became the largest kingdom during the Late Intermediate Period, stretching over 1,000 kilometers of coastline.
The culture’s roots can be traced back to the Moche civilization, identified as Early Chimú, centered in the Chicama, Moche, and Viru Valleys.
During the reign of the Wari Empire, the mature Chimú culture flourished in the same territory where the Mochica had existed centuries before. According to legend, their capital, Chan Chan, was founded by Taycanamo, who arrived by sea. This coastal culture extended from present-day Lima to Trujillo and later expanded to Arequipa.
Chimor was established around 900 CE, with its capital at Chan Chan. It underwent significant expansion under rulers like Nacen-pinco, who was believed to have ruled around 1370, and who laid the foundations of the kingdom by conquering neighboring valleys and regions.
The late period of Chimú civilization, known as Late Chimú, witnessed further territorial growth. The Chimú incorporated diverse ethnic groups, some joining voluntarily while others, like the Sican culture, were assimilated through conquest. At its peak, Chimor’s influence extended to the desert coast, reaching the valley of the Jequetepeque River in the north and ruling over Pampa Grande in the Lambayeque Valley.
Despite being the last Andean kingdom capable of resisting the Inca Empire, Chimor fell to the Incas’ conquest, initiated by Topa Inca Yupanqui in the 1470s. The final Chimú emperor, Minchancaman, was defeated, and the conquest was nearly complete when Huayna Capac ascended the Inca throne in 1493. Minchancaman was moved to Cusco, and the Inca redirected the wealth of Chimor, including gold and silver, to adorn the Qurikancha.
The total population of the Chimú Kingdom was 500,000 people. After it was conquered by the Incas, it was reduced to 40,000 in a century. The people spoke the language “Mochica,” which became extinct after the Inca conquest. Little is documented about Mochica, and its exact sound remains unknown.
The Chimú had no writing or blueprint system, but it’s theorized they might have used Khipus for record-keeping and communication, similar to the Inca’s knotted cord system.
The Chan Chan archaeological site facts
The vast archaeological site spans approximately 20 square kilometers, with the central area encompassing a collection of ten walled ciudadelas, serving as ceremonial rooms, burial chambers, temples, reservoirs, and residences for the Chimú kings.
These ten citadels, with only four recovered, are indicating ten rulers and a hierarchical society where the rulers and gods occupied the top tier. The citadels, approximately 40 feet tall, featured one entrance and served as palatial fortresses for the “Great Lord on top.”
These royal palaces were constructed over the centuries, and it is likely that new kings inherited the title but not the wealth, resulting in new palaces for each ruler’s reign. Over time, newer and larger palaces emerged, indicative of the Chimu’s imperial successes and tribute collection.
The ciudadelas often had U-shaped rooms, strategically placed for controlling the flow of supplies. Over time, these structures increased in frequency and were more grouped, serving as mnemonic devices for supply distribution.
The outside walls of the compounds were adorned with bold relief designs depicting geometric shapes, animals, and sea life, especially fish. Interior walls had niches for wooden decorative masks and figurines, displaying precious art objects.
Other notable structures included courts, small irregular agglutinated rooms (SIARs), and mounds called huacas. These structures held cultural significance, as evidenced by funerary ceramics, indicating the importance of architecture in Chimú society.
This central portion alone covers an area of approximately 6 square kilometers, offering visitors a glimpse into the city’s once-majestic architecture and urban planning.
While the central region boasts well-preserved structures and pyramids, the remaining area contains smaller structures, paths, canals, walls, and cemeteries, which showcase the city’s extensive historical and cultural significance.
The majority of the Chimú population, approximately 26,000 people, resided in barrios on the city’s outer edge, with single-family domestic spaces and various amenities. The Chimú’s efficient utilization of space resulted in rectangular or square-shaped buildings in tight spaces.
Chan Chan, triangular in shape, had 50–60-foot-high walls, strategically designed to block winds and absorb sunlight. The adobe walls were adorned with intricate carvings, depicting subjects such as birds, fish, and small mammals.
Overall, Chan Chan’s architecture reflected the intricate societal structure and cultural importance, while its layout lacked a unified plan or pattern. The city’s unique design and imperial achievements left a lasting legacy in the history of the Chimu Civilization.
The Nik An citadel (Ex Tschudi)
The Palacio Nik An, also known as the Tschudi Complex, stands as a captivating and partially restored section of Chan Chan. To safeguard the site from erosion, parts of it are protected by tent-like structures. While there is hope that other areas may open for the tourists in the future, caution is advised due to the lack of proper policing and signage, which could pose risks to visitors.
The walled complex of “Nik An” serves as an extraordinary testament to the Chimu culture’s deep veneration of water, especially the sea, and the cult surrounding it. Adorned with striking high reliefs, the walls vividly depict various marine elements, such as fish pointing towards the north and south, symbolizing the two currents shaping the Peruvian coast—the Humboldt current from the south and the El Niño current from the north.
Additionally, waves, rombito (fishing nets), pelicans, and anzumitos (a blend of sea lion and otter) further enliven the intricate artwork.
The “Nik An” complex’s design reflects its emphasis on security, featuring high walls reaching up to twelve meters and a single entrance. The construction was crafted to withstand potential earthquakes on the seismic coast, with broader bases (five meters) tapering to narrower summits (one meter).
The site comprises several key areas, including the revered “Main Ceremonial Plaza,” where important ceremonies once took place. This space, adorned with sea otters or carob squirrels and horizontal lines on the interior walls, holds significant cultural significance.
Nearby, a corridor showcases swimming fish in horizontal lines, representing the marine currents flowing from north to south and south to north along the Peruvian coast. On the other side, remnants of diamonds are found, adding to the corridor’s artistic allure.
Ascending from the plaza, visitors encounter the audience area, believed to be dedicated to worship. This space features small sections where offerings were received and worship conducted. The area boasts impressive high-relief figures, including pelicans, crosses, and circular motifs.
At the heart of the palace lies the Ceremonial Plaza, where the legendary Lord Chimú Capac is said to have resided. While its former vibrant decorations of birds and humanized deities are now hard to discern, the space still emanates an aura of spiritual significance and historical grandeur.
The Palacio Nik An stands as a remarkable archaeological treasure, offering insights into the ancient Chimu culture and its connection to the life-giving forces of water and the sea.
Chan Chan archaeological site conservation efforts
The Chan Chan archaeological site faces several threats that put its conservation at risk. Erosion caused by weather patterns, such as heavy rains, flooding, and strong winds, poses a significant danger to the ancient structures, particularly during El Niño storms. The fragile adobe material of Chan Chan is susceptible to damage from increased humidity, salt contamination, and vegetation growth, exacerbating the challenges of preservation.
Archaeologists and conservationists have been working diligently to safeguard the site. They have implemented protective measures, including rain coverings and drainage systems, to mitigate weathering damage. Additionally, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are employed to survey and document the architecture efficiently and accurately.
The Italian Mission in Peru has been actively involved in studying and mapping portions of the site, such as the Tschudi Palace, using advanced imaging technology and 3D models. This approach allows for a comprehensive understanding of the site and serves as a vital tool for future conservation efforts.
Furthermore, an international project between the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Tecnológica (CONCYTEC) aimed to create a 3D Heritage Building Information Model (HBIM) of the Huaca Arco Iris. This initiative contributes to the architectural conservation plan for Chan Chan and highlights the significance of mud architecture in the preservation of heritage sites.
Overall, despite the challenges posed by climate change and anthropogenic factors, continuous monitoring, documentation, and innovative conservation strategies are essential to ensuring the longevity of Chan Chan and preserving its rich cultural heritage for future generations.
The Chan Chan Site Museum
The Museum of Chan Chan is situated on the left side of the road leading to Huanchaco, approximately 500 meters before reaching the Chan Chan turnoff. Within its walls, an impressive collection of original artifacts discovered in Chan Chan is on display, showcasing the richness of this ancient civilization.
Among the exhibited objects are wooden idols, ceramics, metal artifacts, and essential building supplies such as sun-dried mud bricks or adobes, ropes, and beams. The museum houses an astounding assemblage of approximately 15,000 archaeological pieces, including ceramics, lithic and metal artifacts, textiles, and bone remains, providing visitors with a captivating glimpse into the life and culture of the Chimu people.
Beyond its focus on Chan Chan, the museum also delves into the prehistoric cultural evolution of the La Libertad Department, from the earliest stone artifacts to the splendid ceramics crafted by the renowned Moche and Chimu civilizations.
Various exhibit halls are dedicated to agriculture, providing insights into the agricultural instruments, irrigation techniques, and the diverse range of crops cultivated in the fertile Moche valley.
To offer a more comprehensive understanding of the citadels and other areas of the city, the museum boasts an array of scale models that meticulously depict their form and function. These intricate reproductions grant visitors a vivid representation of the architectural marvels that once adorned the landscape of Chan Chan.
Furthermore, visitors can immerse themselves in the city’s history through a captivating multimedia room. Every half hour, the room comes to life with slides, lights, and sound effects, which skillfully recreate the fascinating narrative of Chan Chan’s development. This engaging presentation allows tourists to gain a clear and in-depth comprehension of the city’s growth and significance throughout history.
Although the museum provides some signage in both Spanish and English, the presence of a knowledgeable guide can further enhance the visitor’s experience. With its impressive array of artifacts, interactive displays, and educational resources, the Museum of Chan Chan stands as an invaluable gateway to the past, preserving the legacy of this remarkable civilization and offering a unique window into the ancient world of Chan Chan.
Chimu culture sites close to Chan Chan
Close to Chan Chan, there are fascinating Chimu attractions awaiting exploration. Huaca Esmeralda, an archaeological gem, showcases impressive high reliefs depicting marine life and ceremonial cups. Huaca del Dragón (Huaca Arco íris) boasts intricate embossed figures, including the enigmatic rainbow symbol, offering insights into Chimu rituals and beliefs.
Lastly, the mass burial site of Pampa la Cruz provides a haunting glimpse into the Chimu practice of child sacrifices, uncovering over 200 young victims and shedding light on this unique historical phenomenon. These sites offer a captivating journey into the rich heritage and culture of the ancient Chimu civilization.
The Huaca La Esmeralda, an archaeological site of the Chimu culture, is located in Trujillo, less than 3 kilometers from Chan Chan. Believed to have been constructed during the early stages of Chimu culture, it is closely connected to their capital. The temple is a rectangular pyramid-type structure with two platforms, adorned with characteristic Chimu designs of fish, seabirds, waves, and fishing nets.
Covering an area of approximately 2,600 square meters, the temple features two central ramps leading to the platforms. The first platform, from the later Chimu period, is decorated with fishing nets and fish motifs. The second, older platform displays similar designs to the Tschudi Palace, featuring nets and sea otters.
Discovered in 1923 by a local landowner, Huaca Esmeralda was buried by sand and erosion further exposed its ruins after the 1925 El Niño floods. Although minimal restoration has been carried out, the temple’s distinct Chimu designs remain discernible.
To visit Huaca Esmeralda, green-signed B combis are available from Trujillo, passing through España and Ejército, and España and Independencia corners. However, the area is not always safe, so it is advisable to travel in a group or take a taxi.
The meaning behind its name, “Huaca La Esmeralda,” remains somewhat uncertain. Some speculate it might have been the palace of a prominent Chimu lord from the Mansiche area, while others associate it with the ceremonial cup (huaca) of a figure named Esmeralda.
Regardless of its origins, Huaca La Esmeralda offers a fascinating glimpse into the rich history of the Chimu culture, despite the limited archaeological studies conducted at the site.
Huaca del Dragón (Huaca Arco íris)
The Huaca del Dragón, also known as Huaca Arco Iris, is an archaeological site representing a ceremonial and administrative temple of the Chimú culture. Located in the district of La Esperanza, Trujillo, Peru, it covers an area of 3,240 square meters and lies less than 5 kilometers northeast of Chan Chan.
Surrounded by an independent adobe wall covered with clay, the temple structure features two platforms in an L-shape. The first level, accessed through a ramp, is 3 meters high, while the main second level is 4.50 meters high. The latter platform contains 14 cells with intricate high-relief decorations on the outer walls. The entire temple, constructed mainly with adobe, showcases distinctive Chimu rectangular, cornice, and trapezoidal shapes.
Notably, embossed figures adorn the outer faces of the north, south, and west walls, as well as the inner face of the south wall of the main platform. These figures include representations of rainbows, dancers, zoomorphic, and anthropomorphic figures.
During excavations, 638 ceramic shards were discovered, featuring black ceramics with embossed decoration, as well as burnt oxidized ceramics with furrow decoration. Additionally, 1,563 shell pieces, wooden idols, and tools were found. The fabrics included cotton and wool, with various designs and colors, such as brown, white, and gauze-like cloth.
Metal artifacts made of silver and copper alloy, including ornaments and rivets, were also unearthed. Human bones, mostly from teenagers, were found throughout the temple, with up to 50 individuals buried in the site.
The mass burial site of Pampa la Cruz
The Pampa La Cruz mass burial site, an extensive archaeological dig of the Chimu culture, is located less than 5 miles west of Chan Chan ruins in Huanchaco’s Las Lomas II neighborhood.
In 2011, archaeologists discovered human and animal skeletons here. Over time, they identified more than 200 llama skeletons and 140 human of children aged 6 to 15, displaying deep slashes across the sternum and broken rib cages, possibly indicating heart removal. This event is considered the largest mass child sacrifice known in history, dated around 1400-1450 A.D.
The site revealed several child sacrifice events over 450 years, ranging from 1050 to 1500 A.D., linked to key moments in Chimu development. Anthropologist Haagen Klaus suggests the Chimú might have resorted to child sacrifices when adult offerings couldn’t prevent torrential rains and flooding caused by El Niño.
Archaeologist Gabriel Prieto from the University of Florida proposes that the early Pampa La Cruz sacrifice might have had a political purpose, possibly involving Lambayeque citizens brought to celebrate Chimu victories.
Another interpretation is that the sacrifice was in honor of Taycanamo, the legendary founder of the Chimu civilization, who, according to folklore, emerged from the sea and founded Chan Chan around A.D. 1000. Pampa La Cruz overlooks the spot where he is believed to have landed.
In August 2019, the archaeological team uncovered the remains of 227 victims aged between four and 14, further confirming this as the largest known example of child sacrifice. The ongoing excavations provide valuable insights into Chimu culture and their ritual practices.