Wari, Peru’s First Empire

We couldn’t pass up a visit to the ancient capital of Peru’s oldest empire, Wari. The site is northeast of Ayacucho and not difficult to find. The site is huge, covering 1800 h (about 4,500 acres). As a capital city, Wari was home to rulers, priests, bureaucrats, craftspeople, and farmers. Circular spaces were probably for ritual activities, perhaps with statues in each of the niches.  Lots of stone was used to build high walls and small rooms, and there is a similarity among Wari sites no matter where they are found. They were probably pretty forbidding places.

There are still a lot of questions about Wari. This group of people was considered to have formed an empire. Larger than a state-level society, empires incorporate unrelated groups of people in an extensive territorial political unit. The Wari included settlements from the Moquegua Valley in far southern Peru to the Cusco area, and as far north as Cerro Patapo near Chiclayo in the north. That is almost as large an area as the much later Inca Empire. The Wari built some of the network of roads that the Inca took over and made famous. The Wari also introduced terracing hillsides to expand agricultural land, another innovation that is attributed to the Inca.

Some excavated areas are covered and walking paths connect the excavated areas.

Most of Wari is covered by a thick growth of cactus making it difficult to see areas that have not been excavated or cut down. It keeps people on the path! This huge site would be a great candidate for LIDAR, the technique of mapping with aerial sensors that has been used to map sites in the Maya area covered with heavy plant growth.

The site represents only a small part of the Wari empire, and the small site museum holds only a few items of Wari material culture. Elsewhere there are spectacular weavings, stonework, metalwork, and ceramics. From Feb. 28 – May 28, 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an exhibit, Golden Kingdoms, that showcases Andean art, including some from Wari. Here’s an example of a four cornered hat. Wari designs are highly stylized though you can make out the bird heads on this hat.  There is elaborately painted Wari pottery and stone tools made from obsidian. During our visit to the site, we found fragments of decorated pottery and of obsidian lying on the path.

Jonathan bought a cap embroidered with the Wari figure of the staff god from one of the vendors outside the site entrance. Most of what was for sale were crates of “tuna” the fruit of the opuntia cactus. They are pretty but neither of us is interested in eating them. Too many seeds, too little flavor. We returned to Ayacucho from the land of cactus.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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