4 Things the Ancient Wari Did Before It Was Cool

Because we have loads of written accounts of Inca life and history*, we know more about them than we do about any other ancient South American culture. But they were only around for about a 100 years (specifically, from 1438 to 1533)–loads of other equally amazing cultures had developed on the continent, long before the Inca even sheared their first llama.

If they were around today, the Wari would be particularly offended by how little we know about them compared to the Inca, especially as the Wari** did a lot of the things that the Inca usually get the credit for. In other words, they were the ultimate hipster civilisation.

So, what are these things that they did before it was cool?

1. Ruling Peru

The Inca were not the first South Americans to have their own empire–the Wari were there first. It was not as big as the Inca Empire, but it lasted longer–so, though it only covered most of Peru (the Inca ruled over most of Western South America), it lasted about 500 years, between 600 and 1100 AD. And yeah, of course the Spanish invasion is partly to blame for the fall of the Inca, but I think the Empire was on its last legs anyway, so it wouldn’t have lasted much longer than it did anyway.

Like the Inca, the Wari spread their control over vast territories by founding administrative centres wherever they conquered. The Inca used their administrative centres to resettle labor forces, and to host lavish feasts in which said the efforts of said labour forces were rewarded with pints and pints of maize beer. There are some who believe that the Wari used their centres in a similar way, but there’s not much evidence than that, and it sounds a lot like people simply projecting what we know about the Inca onto what we don’t know about the Wari. No doubt, the Wari would have found this quite aggravating.

Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

Wari mummy on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

2. Building Efficient Road Networks

Everybody knows that the Inca built long roads all across their Empire, for the efficient movement and transportation of armies, labour forces, messages, and trade goods (including, famously, fish that was still fresh when it got to the highlands, after a journey that started on the coast). Few, however, know that many of those roads had already been built by the Wari. I don’t think a study has actually been carried out specifically on this topic, but many so-called Inca roads are said to clearly link up Wari centres one to the other, and they often pass through smaller Wari sites, which were probably waystations–like Jincamocco, on the road between the capital, Huari, and the Peruvian coast.

Wari llamas--no doubt among the main species to be led by the Wari along their long, long roads. (These llama-shaped pots are on display at Lima's

Wari llama-shaped ceramic vessels, on display at Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and Archaeology.

3. Speaking Quechua

Before the Spanish came along, Quechua was the main language family spoken in Western South America. For a long time, people thought that this was because of the Inca–the Inca were thought to have been Quechua-speakers, who simply made their Quechua dialect their Empire’s official language out of convenience.

However, there are some interesting signs that, in fact, it was the Wari who spread Quechua across Peru–and that the Inca (who may have spoken some other language, such as Aymara) adopted it as an administrative language because it was already so widespread. Simply put, based on the number of Quechua dialects that exist today, and how different they are from one another, archaeologist David Beresford-Jones and linguist Paul Heggarty argue that Quechua dialects are more likely to have spread during the course of the Wari Empire’s 500 years, and then further evolved from that moment onward, than having spread during the 100 years of the Inca Empire, and evolved since then. Also, a map of the traditional distribution of Quechua speakers is remarkably similar to a map of the Wari Empire: they both cover most of the highlands, from Ancash to Cuzco, as well as the South-Central coast, excluding the area north of Lima, and a few isolated pockets around Cajamarca and Viracochapampa.

A map of Quechua's assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

A map of Quechua’s assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a little bit like saying that the Romans didn’t speak Latin to begin with, but had to adopt it because it was already widespread throughout Europe and North Africa when they start expanding their empire. I should say that not all agree with this scenario, but it’s definitely a plausible one.

4. Dystopian Architecture

Long before the twentieth-century graced the world with Soviet architecture, the Wari had already figured out that erecting very big, very ugly, and very standardised buildings was a good way of striking fear and instilling misery in the hearts of the populace.

All Wari administrative centres are made up of one huge rectangular enclosure, with an orderly set of smaller rectangular enclosures inside. The walls of these enclosures are overwhelmingly huge–13 ft (4 m) thick and 30 ft (10 m) tall. They usually surround open courtyards, with mazes of rooms around and between them. Sometimes even the streets that lead from Point A to Point B are walled off. Doors and windows are kept to a bare minimum–indeed, people used to think that the city of Pikillacta had no doors at all, which to led to theories about it having been an ancient prison, or some horrific mental asylum. However, a few decades ago a team of archaeologists led by Gordon McEwan found the city’s elusive doors–simply by digging a bit deeper along the buildings’ walls.

"Welcome to The Grid": the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone

“Welcome to The Grid”: the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone 2012: 148).

(It’s worth saying that the actual Wari capital, Huari, is an absolute mess–the exact chaotic opposite of the administrative centres the Wari dotted all around Peru–which has actually made it very difficult for archaeologists to work on it.)

… and that’s about it for now. I was going to add some more stuff about Wari art, but it doesn’t fit  very well with this theme, so I think I’ll just turn this into a series–so stay tuned for the next post, which will probably include stuff on looting, forgeries, and the illicit trade of antiquities!

In the meantime, if you want to read a bit more about the Wari, check out what’s been written about last summer’s spectacular find of an unlooted Wari tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey, just north of Lima–here and here!

* Courtesy, mostly, of an Inca nobleman named Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a half-Inca named Garcilaso de la Vega, a Jesuit priest named Bernabe Cobo, and a mixed assortment of Spanish mercenaries and missionaries–check out my post on Inca childhood for some of the stuff they wrote!

** They’re also known as Huari–not what they called themselves, but, rather, the modern name of the site where the ruins of their presumed capital lie.


Beresford-Jones, D.P. and Heggarty, P. 2012. Broadening Our Horizons: Towards an Interdisciplinary Prehistory of the Andes. In Heggarty, P. and Beresford-Jones, D. (eds.) Archaeology and Language in the Andes pp. 57-84. New York: Oxford University Press.

Isbell, W.H. 1987. State origins in the Ayacucho valley, central highlands, Peru. In Haas, J., Pozorski, T. and Pozorski, S. (eds.) The origins and development of the Andean state pp. 83-90. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Isbell, W.H. 1988. City and State in Middle Horizon Huari. In Keatinge, R.W. (ed.) Peruvian Prehistory pp. 164-189. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

McEwan, G.F. 1991. Investigations at the Pikillacta site: a provincial Huari centre in the valley of Cuzco. In Isbell, W.H. and McEwan, G.F. (eds.) Huari Administrative Structure: Prehistoric Monumental Architecture and State Government pp. 93-120. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, R.S. 2012. Art of the Andes. New York: Thames & Hudson.

1 comment
  1. signorinatumistufi said:

    As always a very enjoyable read. I thought the part about the dystopian architecture was very cool.

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