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Pedestrian Archaeology in the Great Peruvian City of Wari

January 25, 2016
Ruins of the ancient Wari civilization near Ayacucho, Peru Ruins of the ancient Wari civilization near Ayacucho, Peru © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Learning about Peruvian archaeology through books, articles, and lectures is one thing, but there is no substitute for seeing an archaeological site on the ground and walking through it. One of my graduate school professors, Pedro Armillas, called this "pedestrian archaeology."

Learning about Peruvian archaeology through books, articles, and lectures is one thing, but there is no substitute for seeing an archaeological site on the ground and walking through it. One of my graduate school professors, Pedro Armillas, called this "pedestrian archaeology."

One of my most memorable early experiences with pedestrian archaeology was on a trip to the Andes in 1967, when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. Several days after I arrived in Ayacucho, Professor Tom Zuidema, who was supervising graduate fieldwork there, took us to see Wari, the ruins of the onetime capital city of the Wari Empire. Wari was relatively close to Ayacucho, and we could visit the site and return easily within one day.

As we left Ayacucho and descended into the river valley that we had seen on our incoming flight, we observed firsthand the dryness of the bottom of the valley. The only vegetation were various species of cactus and molle trees, a native species that thrives in these dry valleys. The molle's tiny red fruits are used to make an alcoholic beer called chicha. And when the fruits mature and dry, they are ground to make Peruvian yellow pepper—a use that accounts for the tree’s common name, the pepper tree.

When we finally reached the river at the absolute bottom of the valley, we could see the water, which was chocolate-colored from the suspended clays and soils from sources higher on the slopes. The rains were heavy that year and the roads were partially washed out. The bridge across the river seemed precarious because the current had eroded its abutments. After crossing it, the road ascended with curves and zigzags to a relatively flat area near a hamlet called Muruncancha.

At the time, there was no road into the ruins of Wari. So Professor Zuidema turned onto a dirt track on the uphill side of Muruncancha and drove as far as he could. He parked and we walked west toward a large rock outcrop. On the other side, the city center of Wari stretched across a plateau that sloped gently toward the river in the valley below.

Wari was a giant city during its dominance from AD 600 to 1000. Estimates of its size vary, but some archaeologists believe that as many as 50,000 people lived there (small figures by today’s standards, but a major population center during its time). Archaeological surveys of the city and the surrounding area reveal occupation that stretched far beyond the city’s core—the area most visible today. Located at the approximate geographic center of the valley, it was surrounded by excellent agricultural land in the floodplain below and on the gentle slopes of the upper portion of the valley. Water was probably supplied to the city by a large canal filled from streams diverted at higher elevations.

Wari also was the center of an empire that included much of the central and southern parts of Peru. Evidence of its dominance comes from pottery styles and well-planned and organized sites located hundreds of miles away, such as Pikillaqta near Cusco in southern Peru and Viracocha Pampa near Cajamarca in northern Peru. The fortunes of Wari appeared to have risen and fallen with abrupt changes in climate, decreasing the amount of productive agricultural land and reducing food security as the climate became drier.

No city is located on or near Wari today, and some of the factors that contributed to its greatness in prehistory are no longer present. Further up the slope is the site of Quinua, the first Spanish settlement between Lima and Cusco. Quinua is also the location of the Battle of Ayacucho, which forever broke the back of Spanish power in South America in 1824. The settlement eventually moved to the present site of the city of Ayacucho. The co-occurrence of a great pre-Inka capital center, the location of the third Spanish settlement in Peru, the site of the Battle of Ayacucho, and the modern city of Ayacucho indicates that the valley was a critical location in the south-central Andes.

Although I did not realize it at the time, the road from the city of Ayacucho to its namesake battlefield would later be relocated through the center of Wari. Traveling on this road eleven years later, I could see steep sides around the plateau on which Wari sits. This topography protected the city from attack from the valley below, and a wall protected the uphill side, separating its main core from suburban occupation further up the slope.

Wari was vast, and even though it was the rainy season, it was very hot. Even though Wari lies near the base of the valley, its elevation ranges from 8,500 to 9,500 feet above sea level, and most of the earth’s atmosphere lies below. At that elevation, humans are exposed to the direct rays of the sun unfiltered by most of the atmosphere. Above us, on the high slopes of the valley, we could see the horizontal vegetation zones that correspond to different elevations. Higher elevations receive more rainfall, but as the elevation and rainfall decrease, the temperature and the amount of sunshine increase. These factors and the resulting different vegetation correspond to varying agricultural potential. In this environment, the bottoms of the valleys are dry because they are in the rain shadow from the moisture-laden clouds coming from the east during the rainy season. Wari was near the bottom of the valley but above the river and its floodplain. During the rainy season, it receives little rain and is often sunny. While it is too dry to grow maize and most other crops, some locals plant wheat and the Andean grain quinoa there during the rainy season. In the floodplain below, however, the alluvial soil, warmer temperatures, and irrigation water from the river result in excellent agricultural potential, especially for maize.

After we wandered around Wari, we got hungry and thirsty. Unfortunately, we did not think ahead to bring food or drink but noticed that nopal cactus covered the site, and its orange-red fruit was ripe. If we could get close enough to detach the fruit without being impaled on the spines of the stems and leaves, we would be rewarded with a delicious and refreshing snack. The trick was to remove the tiny spines on the fruit, but the only way to be sure that they were gone was to remove the skin. Unfortunately, only one of us had a pocket knife.

Being hungry and thirsty, our appetite tempted us to bite into the fruit after rubbing off the spines on our clothes before the skin was removed. Such impatience brought uncomfortable consequences because we could never remove all of the spines, and some of them always lodged in our tongues. They did not hurt, but they were annoying. Normal eating and chewing were the only way to eliminate them, and eventually they wore away. In the meantime, eating with spines in our tongues was a nuisance that we had to endure.

The trip to Wari was awe-inspiring. Its extent was astounding and required more than a half day to even begin to explore it. Even with our limited trek around it, I was left with a great appreciation of its vast geographic extent, its large population, and its strategic location.

Dean E. Arnold is adjunct curator of anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and professor emeritus of anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has taught anthropology for forty-three years; done field work in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and the Southwest; and published four books, including the highly regarded seminal work Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process, and more than sixty articles about potters, pottery, and pottery production and related subjects (such as Maya Blue). His other books are Social Change and the Evolution of Ceramic Production and Distribution in a Maya CommunityThe Evolution of Ceramic Production Organization in a Maya Community, and Ecology and Ceramic Production in an Andean Community. Arnold was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico and Peru, a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall at University of Cambridge in 1985, and a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Archeology there in 1985, 1992, and 2000. He received the Society for American Archaeology's Award for Excellence in Ceramic Studies in 1996. In 2003, he received the Charles R. Jenkins Award for Distinguished Achievement from the National Executive Council of Lambda Alpha (the National Collegiate Honor Society for Anthropology). He received the Wheaton College Senior Faculty Scholarship Achievement Award in 2001 and the Wheaton College Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Service to Alma Mater in 2008.


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