The fifteenth-century Spanish travelers who embarked on voyages of discovery and conquest in the Americas expected to encounter primitive savage races. Instead, they found advanced civilizations with intricately designed cities, complex social hierarchies and accurate methods of calculating calendars. But despite this evidence, the Spaniards used the differences between the two sets of cultural beliefs and practices as proof of the inferiority of the Andean civilizations. Because of this backwardness, the Spanish believed that colonization was needed to bring "civilization" to the new world. Susan Ramirez described this Eurocentrism as a "disregard of others' cultures and identities" (Ramirez, 10-11).
This paper applies Ramirez's critique of Eurocentrism by looking at the civilization of the Chimu, a powerful coastal kingdom in Northern Peru. By looking at the Chimu religion and social structure - as evidenced in their ceramic art and in their architecture - this paper posits that the Chimu were a people with a rich and complex civilization even before the Spanish conquerors arrived.
By the time of the Spanish conquest, various aspects of the Chimu culture were still evident among the resettled Chimu and the former Chimu territories along the coast of Peru. In fact, many of the coastal territories continued to use the Chimu language yunca, a term which eventually became identified with the Chimu descendents (Mason 102).
The Chimu had no written language and their cultural practices included sodomy and ritual sacrifice, customs that the Inca and the Spaniards found abhorrent. According to Ramirez's formulation, these differences in values and worldviews left the Spaniards blind to the Chimu's mastery of gold and silver artisanship and the engineering skill that went into the complex irrigation programs that watered Chimu urban dwellings.
The Chimus were the immediate predecessors of the Incas. Their civilization lasted from circa 1100 AD to 1400 and flourished along Peru's northern coast. The Chimu state was characterized by conquest and expansion periods during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. At its height, the Chimu Empire stretched across 620 square miles (Crow 24).
Chimu conquest led to their domination over neighboring states such as Chancay. In the mid-15th century, however, a quest for expansion to the south led to conflicts with the Inca Empire. The Chimu were overwhelmed by the Inca in a yearlong war beginning 1475. The entire Chimu state was then absorbed. The nobility and skilled artisans were resettled in the city of Cuzco to serve their new Inca rulers (von Hagen 162).
The Chimu were well-known for an elaborate irrigation system that brought in a great amount of water into an otherwise arid land. This irrigation system gave rise to an agricultural system and allowed the Chimu to build and congregate in large urban centers. One irrigation canal, for example, stretched for 20 miles to bring water to the capital city of Chan. This irrigation system, however, also proved to be their Achilles heel. To weaken their enemies, the Incas destroyed the canals, depriving Chimu states of water (von Hagen 119).
Aside from agriculture, the Chimu were also craftspeople who produced textiles, silver, gold and copper objects. Their as ceramics and pottery, while not artistically accomplished as other Andean civilizations, depicts many scenes from Chimu daily life (Mason 103). Because the Chimu did not have a written language, much of the scholarship on their religion and social structures are inferred from the artifacts and architecture that they left behind.
The October 2002 discovery of 200 mummified remains of fishermen in Huarmey, Peru confirms that the Chimu practiced ritual sacrifices. The fishermen were members of a fertile seaside valley conquered by the Chimu in 1350. The sacrificial victims were stabbed in a mass killing then offered as tribute to the sea god Ni (Ryan, "Peru find 200 fishers...").
The archeological find confirms that the Chimu were part of a long religious tradition that included human sacrifice. Archeologists believe that as the Chimu Empire prospered, there was a corresponding increase in the scale and frequency of these human sacrifices (Ryan).
The discovery of the mass killings also confirms earlier evidence of human sacrifices when the skeletons of several young women were found inside the tombs of nobility. Such finds, however grisly, show that the Chimu had the concept of an afterlife and sought to curry favor with the gods through an ultimate sacrifice.
Unlike the Incas, the Chimu were moon-worshippers, a trait common to the coastal-dwelling peoples (Leicht 63). Religion often grows out of a need to explain the unknown. Following this need, the Chimu anthromorphized objects in nature for veneration.
The moon was a natural choice for worship, since as a coastal people, the Chimu readily observed the moon's phases and its influence on the tides. In addition, the Chimu believed that the stars were gods as well. The Chimu were dependent on water, giving rise to the god Ni and a host of other sea-spawned creatures which needed to be kept appeased. Every unexplained phenomenon was attributed to a god (von Hagen 105-106).
Like many ancient peoples, the Chimu practiced a form of totemism, believing that every object in nature - from rocks to trees to animals - possessed both sentience and a soul. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian notion giving humans dominion over the world, the Chimu saw themselves as part of the sphere of animals (von Hagen 106).
In labeling the Chimu and the yunca as primitive because of their religious beliefs, the Spanish conquerors and missionaries ignored several important parallels between the Chimu and Judeo-Christian beliefs.
First, the elaborate Chimu burial rituals, at least for rulers and nobility, implied a belief in life after death. The Chimu believed that their dead should carry with them the possessions - pots, cups, weapons - that they would need in the afterlife. The dead were also wrapped in shrouds signifying their rank in life (Leicht 74). These practices facilitate the continuity of life, a belief that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Christian concept of the immortal soul.
Like the Incas, the Chimu also believed in the Hauqui, a friendly shadow which provided people with friendship and good counsel (von Hagen 106). Again, this belief in friendly spirits is akin to the Christian concepts of guardian angels, a fact that the Spaniards, in their Eurocentrism, failed to recognize.
Early Spanish chroniclers of pre-conquest Peru described the ten main tribes, further subdivided into groups of a thousand under the command of a native chieftain. These subgroups were further divided into hundreds and tens. The cornerstone of this military and tribal organizations was the Ayllu, an Indian word for the family group or clan (Leicht 79).
The pre-Inca Chimus were a clan-based people. Like the ancient Romans, they had patriarchal clan names which were handed down from father to son. Each clan within a Chimu kingdom was allotted its own domicile and communal farm. The various clans venerated their own deities and celebrated their religious feasts. Like the Spaniards, the Chimus also observed bans on consanguinity ties. Marriage between two people from the same Ayllu was strictly forbidden (Leicht 81).
Many of the laws governing Chimu societies seemed harsh by the standards of the Spanish colonizers. Theft, for example, could be punishable by death. Chimu pottery shows people with amputated hands and feet, also a punishment for petty robbery. In addition, the robber loses all clan rights and is condemned to a life of slavery (von Hagen 93). Though severe, the punishment serves the interests of the clan. Because Chimu life is communal, theft is unnecessary, an aberration that destabilizes clan life. It is therefore dealt with in harsh terms.
On the other hand, and to the Spaniards' consternation, sexual intercourse between unmarried Chimu was completely acceptable. This practice continued in the former Chimu coastal territories after the Inca conquest and depicted in several Chimu pottery and ceramic wares. Spanish missionaries, in particular, sought to end sexual practices such as fornication and sodomy but were unsuccessful (Leicht 93-94).
Again, a different worldview as described by Ramirez would paint this behavior as evidence of "lower morals." However, it should be noted that the Chimu dealt harshly with adulterers. Fornication was harmless but adultery and its potential for conflict were deemed harmful to the clan.
Thus, people who commit adultery were thrown over cliffs and plunged into the sea (Leicht 94).
The Chimu kingdoms functioned as theocracies, where the dead rulers were venerated as demigods in an elaborate form of ancestor worship. Therefore, defiling a ruler's grave or temple is blasphemy, perceived as an attack on the whole clan. A person deemed blasphemous was therefore buried alive among the bones of previous offenders, protecting the rest of the clan against their actions (Leicht 94).
These punishments appeared harsh, but they mirrored the barbarity of hangings, wheel racks and horse quartering practiced in Europe well into the 18th century. Also, the Chimu practiced a form of socialized justice, where offenses which could be pardoned in common…