The Incans had a very complex society, much of which thrived on their relationship
with nature and religion. The people believed their main god, Inti was
the sun god and that no one person could own land as the land, people, and gods
had to work in unison. They also became impressive builders as they had a road system
that stretched the length of their empire (which by the 1500s stretched from
Colombia to Argentina and from the coast to Amazon
rain forests). They also constructed one of the world's most impressive structures
in the city of Machu Picchu, which was primarily built in the mid-1400s.
The Incans seemed safely protected in the Andes when the Spanish
arrived in the early 1500s, but these mountains would later prove to be not enough
for full protection from the Spanish explorers or their diseases. Additionally,
when the Spanish did arrive, they knew of the Incan Empire and heard of its riches
and gold, giving the Spanish reason to immediately focus their settlement and colonization
efforts in what is today Peru.
With the first waves of Spanish explorers, both in
Peru and elsewhere, European diseases spread quickly.
Many of the Incans died from these diseases and nearly the entire royal family was
killed by smallpox in the 1520s. In fact the population at the time was nearly 10
million and only a century later the indigenous population was estimated to be at
about half a million. The death of the royal family in the 1520s led to political
chaos in the empire so, when Francisco Pizarro arrived to the region in 1532, he
quickly took over the now divided empire (which at that time was centered in both
Ecuador and Peru) then focused their
attentions in Cuzco.
With Spanish presence the region fell into further chaos.
Numerous Spanish conquistadores fought amongst themselves, the Spanish
government tried to establish control, and many local peoples resisted and raided
the Spanish. Through this time the indigenous people, primarily all being part of
the Incan Empire, tried to maintain their historic culture and religion as many
did so quite successfully due to the isolation of the mountains. Others became the
victims of Spanish colonization efforts while the Spanish began their expansion,
first in Cuzco, then in Lima as a colonial Spanish culture was born.
The Spanish began to enslave the locals as best they could,
forcing them to work as labor on farms. Missionaries also arrived to convert the
people to Catholicism. During this process of Spanish conquest there seemed to be
a tapering of cultural conversion. In the more isolated mountains and further east
into the Amazon Rain forests, the Spanish made little impact as the people maintained
their cultures, traditions, languages, and in some cases even their religion. In
regions closer to Spanish power, such as Cuzco and Lima the local people became
Catholic, started to learn Spanish, and even married many arriving Spaniards, while
Spanish influence fell between these extremes in the other regions.
In 1542 the Spanish created the Viceroyalty of Peru, a political
entity, which made modern day Peru a center of Spanish power
in South America. From this point into the early 1600s
the dynamic in the region greatly changed as nearly 90% of the local population
died from diseases as former Incan cities were converted to Spanish cities and a
Catholic church was built in the center of each. The economy also shifted to one
of farming, mining, and trade based out of Lima.
Spanish power continued to grow in the 1600s, especially considering
huge population loss of the local people due to disease and war. The local people
didn't simply submit to the Spanish though; those in mountain valleys and in
the Amazon continued to resist quite successfully and some even fought the Spanish.
As the ethnic mix in the country shifted in the favor of the Spanish, many local
people desperately clung to their languages, religions, and cultures.
The 1700s saw more than rebellions against the Spanish in
Peru. This time also experienced economic and political demise
for the region as Spain adjusted their borders in South America,
removing lands from the jurisdiction of Peru. Through this century there also seemed
to be a number of cultural changes in Peru; while many groups were fiercely fighting
and resisting the Spanish, many other people had adopted the Spanish language, religion,
and lifestyle by this time.
Despite the improving relations between the groups, it was still the ethnic Spanish
that made the decisions and many of these people were very loyal to the Spanish
government. Therefore, when Spain was taken over by
France in the early 1800s, many of these people resisted independence unlike
most of South America. None-the-less, there were enough
independence seekers in the region that debates and wars led to independence in
1821. Of course this independence only came with internal support and external generals,
including Jose de San Martin from Argentina and Simon
Bolivar from Venezuela.
From the time of independence in 1821, Peru struggled as did
so many other countries in the region after gaining independence. Wars were regular
and borders were debated into the 1840s. The country also struggled economically
and political stability was sporadic. The situation settled down dramatically in
the 1850s and 1860s, although revolts and political chaos still were not uncommon.
The people remained fairly divided as they had prior to independence, but now the
rebellions had lessened. The new government, led by ethnic Spanish, held unquestionable
control over the region so stopped massive efforts to convert or control the indigenous
population, while the local people welcomed the lack of effort and continued living
their lives much as they had before independence.
On the political side, South America was still in
transition and in 1879 war broke out between Chile on one
side and Bolivia and Peru on the other.
This war led to the loss of lands for both Peru and Bolivia and it destroyed relations
between Peru and Chile.
The war also turned Peru's focus inward as social, economic,
and political changes were implemented. Of course this came with debates, leading
to a couple coups and military dictatorships, but by the early 1900s these changes
were underway and stability was gained, although political freedoms were a thing
of the past. This stability lasted until 1929 when the world economy suffered; this
economic struggle in Peru translated to political instability as the country again
went through leader after leader as each tried to secure power through any means
This time also experienced major cultural changes in the country as the country
became heavily urbanized. With a struggling economy many people moved to cities
to seek out new jobs and opportunities (although even in cities few were available).
The early 1900s were also a time when healthcare was vastly improving and a number
of social programs had taken hold, improving the country as a whole and leading
to a massive population increase, partially due to expanding lifespans.
The early 1900s also experienced world wars and other turmoil. In addition to nominally
joining the Allies in World War II, Peru got involved in a
war with Ecuador in the 1941 regarding their borders, giving
the country poor relations with another of their neighbors. After these wars the
country continued on the path of social, economic, and political improvements. Sadly,
political instability again made these changes limited in effectiveness.
The political instability in Peru lasted well into the 1990s.
The government changed hands numerous times and with each new leader it seemed new
laws were implemented or certain rights were restricted. This hurt the economy as
well as social rights. In an odd way though, little changed culturally as the people
continued to live in their impoverished state. The cities continued to grow as they
became more industrialized and the people in the mountains and jungles continued
to live primarily off the land as few technological or economic improvements tempted
the people to sway from their lifestyle.
The 1980s became a time when political stability began to return, although economic
instability made this short-lived as inflation destroyed the economy. Some people
turned to illegal trade during this time as Peru became an
important source country for the drug trade. Others turned to violence in order
to take over the government or simply to protest the government, leading to further
Peru finally gathered stability in the 1990s as rebel groups
were destroyed and the economy was brought back under control. Since this time the
country has been continuing on a path to restructuring the economy and political
system, which it has done fairly successfully. The country has experienced massive
tourist growth, centered on Machu Picchu.
The country today is still changing and stabilizing as modern technology is quickly
altering the people and their culture. The country remains divided, but at peace
as the Spanish descendants, the mestizos (Spanish and indigenous descent),
the Quechua, and the Aymara all holding on to aspects of their historic cultures.
Traditional dress, food, and language are all common throughout the country today,
but most of the people have converted to Catholicism, no matter their ethnicity.