Footprints in time
More than 12,000 years ago, at the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, the current coastal fringe of northern Peru looked very different than it does today: the marine line was fifty meters lower, the rains that followed the end of the last ice age created extensive rolling hills, and the valleys featured dense forests of native tree species like the carob, the sapote, and the long spine acacia. This was the environment that welcomed the first humans who established themselves in the pampas of Paijan and Cupisnique that are found between the Chicama, Chepen, and Pacasmayo valleys. These hunters and collectors left traces of their campsites, stone quarries, and workshops as well as plenty of stone artifacts, especially the so-called “fish tail” arrowheads, which have enabled the Paijan tradition that stretched throughout the entire north and central coast to be identified. The first evidence of these primitive inhabitants was found by Rafael Larco Hoyle and Junius Bird in the first half of the XX century.
Later investigations done by Engel, Ubbelohde-Doering, Chauchat, Bonavia, and others have determined that these groups were composed by at least twenty individuals with an action radius of up to 20 kilometers from the base camp. Their food consisted of fish, like the Peruvian banded croaker and the Tallfin croaker, mollusks, reptiles, land snails, and small mammals like field mice and vizcachas, even though the remains of white tailed deer and Sechura foxes have been found. The abundant stone remains left in their places of occupation have made it possible for us to establish how they made their tools, fashioned out of rhyolite, basalt, and quartzite, which they extracted from their quarries and then worked with wood and stone strikers.
Larco established Cupisnique as the original center of northern pottery. It is here that the characteristic stirrup-shaped handle appeared that was later spread by the Mochicas and even later adopted by the Chimus. Larco described this culture in 1933, in the Sausal plantation, which is close to the town of Ascope in La Libertad. Cupisnique flourished with human sedentarization on the coast after the appearance of agriculture, and it spread between southern Lambayeque and northern La Libertad from 800 to 200 B.C. at the same time as the apex of Chavin de Huantar in the central highlands.
Although, at the beginning, Cupisnique was treated as a coastal annex of Chavin, Larco’s research demonstrated that Cupisnique developed independently; he wrote, “if we carefully analyze the different cultures that have supposedly been involved with the so-called Chavin Civilization, we would arrive at the conclusion that even if they did have elements of a common cultural, they have others and in greater quantity that enable us to differentiate one culture from another.” The same as in Chavin, the inhabitants of Cupisnique dedicated themselves to building large temples such as the Caballo Muerto (Dead Horse) complex, where the Huaca de los Reyes (Kings’ Mound) is found, the largest ceremonial building discovered up till now. This construction features the characteristic U-shaped floor plan with superimposed platforms. There were also several adobe sculptures found here as well as low relief sculptures in the adobe and stone walls that represent their anthropomorphic gods, which are similar to their Andean neighbors.
In pottery, the Cupisniques reached an interesting level of development. Their main objects found were bottles or tube-shaped pitchers with the stirrup-shaped handle, colored black, red, brown, or cream, and decorated with incisions around the entire body. Through their principal motifs, we can infer that the inhabitants of this culture were fiercely dedicated to agriculture and maintained constant trade with the Andes.