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12.18: The Sicán

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    Learning Objective

    • Explain the unique aspects of the Sicán and what led to their downfall

    Key Points

    • In the Early Sicán period (750–900 CE) the Sicán began to establish trade and commerce.
    • The Middle Sicán period (900–1100 CE) saw an explosion of culture and art, along with the development of extensive trading routes.
    • Environmental changes caused unrest in the Late Sicán period (1100–1375), but the ultimate end to the Sicán came when they were conquered by the Chimú.



    A thin sheet of low-karat gold alloy, which was used to decorate symbolic metal vessels for lower elites.

    Sicán Precinct

    The religious and cultural center of the Sicán culture.

    Sicán Deity

    The central religious figure of the Middle Sicán period. This entity represented water, the ocean, and natural resources. It was also the social underpinning of the theocratic state.

    The Sicán culture inhabited what is now the north coast of Peru between about 750 CE and 1375 CE. They succeeded the Moche culture, but there is still controversy among archeologists and anthropologists over whether the two are separate cultures.

    Early Sicán Period

    The Early Sicán period began around 750 CE and lasted until 900 CE. The lack of artifacts has limited the development of knowledge about this early period. Based on common themes, the Sicán were probably direct descendants of the Moche and developed their new culture during an unstable time in the region.

    From remains found in archaeological locations, researchers have determined that this culture maintained commercial exchange with people from present-day Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile, and the eastern basin of the Marañón River.

    The Early Sicán culture is known for the highly polished, black-finish ceramics found in the La Leche Valley. This black-finish ceramic style began in the Moche culture prior to the Early Sicán, and demonstrates the sharing of cultures in the region. Many of the ceramics were examples of a single spout, loop-handle bottle, featuring an anthropomorphic-avian (bird) face at the spout base. The face consisted of bulging eyes, a hooked beak or triangular projection instead of a nose, stylized ears, and no mouth. It appeared to be a predecessor to the related faces of the Sicán Deity and the Sicán Lord of the Middle Sicán culture.

    Ceremonial mask. Peru, north coast, La Leche Valley, 900–1100 CE.

    Aside from the shared ceramic styles, much of the Early Sicán defines a distinguishable culture. While the ceramic styles and iconography show some continuity with previous cultures, the changing iconography, ceramic themes, and funerary practices reflect a change in religious ideology and cosmology that expressed the Sicán culture.

    Most importantly, the late Early Sicán period saw a major organizational and religious shift, by which the Sicán constructed monumental adobe structures, developed large-scale copper alloy smelting and metalworking, and developed the elaborate funerary tradition that would come to characterize the Middle Sicán. Such changes have been noted by researchers at sites in Batan Grande, including the Huaca del Pueblo site, dated to around 850–900 CE.

    Middle Sicán Period

    The Middle Sicán period lasted from 900 to 1100 CE. This is the period of the Sicán’s “cultural florescence,” and was marked by the emergence of various cultural innovations, some of which were unprecedented in the local area. The Sicán culture had a highly productive economy, clear social differentiation, and an influential religious ideology. This religious ideology served as the underpinning of the social hierarchy of the theocratic state.

    The precious metal objects found in Middle Sicán sites reveal the unprecedented scale of their production and use, as well as the class hierarchy inherent in Sicán culture. Metal objects permeated all levels of society. Tumbaga, a thin sheet of low-karat gold alloy, was used to wrap ceramic vessels for the lower elites, while the upper elites had high-karat gold alloys. Common laborers had only arsenical copper objects.

    Gold beaker. A 9th–11th century gold beaker exemplary of Middle Sicán art and craftsmanship. 

    Funerary Practices of the Middle Sicán

    Funerary practices at Huaca Loro reflected the social differentiation and hierarchy present in Sicán society. This social stratification is revealed in varying burial types and practices, along with accompanying grave goods. The most obvious difference in burial type based on social hierarchy was that commoners were buried in simple, shallow graves on the peripheries of the monumental mounds while the elite were buried in deep shaft tombs beneath monumental mounds. It was found that one’s social status was also a determinant of the burial position of the body—whether it was seated, extended, or flexed. Bodies of the high elite were always buried in the seated position, while commoners could be buried in a seated, extended, or flexed position.

    Social stratification and hierarchy is also evidenced through the variation in quantity and quality of grave goods for different social classes. The elite East Tomb at Huaca Loro contained over a ton of diverse grave goods, over two-thirds of which were objects of arsenical bronze, tumbaga, silver and copper alloys, and high-karat gold alloys. Other grave goods of the elite included:

    • Semi-precious stone objects
    • Amber
    • Feathers
    • Textiles
    • Imported shells (such as conus and spondylus)
    • Shell beads
    • Double spout bottles

    All of these items required hours of labor and precious supplies, highlighting the power of the elite. On the other hand, commoners had significantly fewer grave goods of different types, made of less valuable materials. For example, commoner grave goods at Huaca Loro were usually restricted to single-spout bottles, utilitarian plain and/or paddle decorated pottery, and copper-arsenic objects, instead of the precious metal objects of the elite tombs.

    Religious Cities and Elite Culture

    The Sicán culture was characterized by the establishment of religious cities with monumental temples. The religious capital city and cultural center of the Middle Sicán is referenced as the Sicán Precinct, which is defined by a number of monumental rounds. The pyramidal monumental mounds were used as both burials sites for the elite and places of worship and ritual. The construction of these mounds required considerable material, manpower, and time, indicating the Sicán elite’s control and monopoly over the society’s resources.

    None of the metalworking sites showed evidence of on-site mining of any materials. In addition, the spondylus shell, emeralds, feathers, and other minerals were imported to the area. Their materials came from mainly the Northern Andes, but could have also come from as far south as the Tiwanaku lands in the South Central Andes and as far east as the Marañón River, a major Amazon River tributary. The Sicán also could have controlled the transport methods in addition to the goods being traded. The breeding and herding of llamas on the north coast since the time of the Moche could have been utilized by the Sicán to provide caravans of llamas to transport the goods considerable distances.

    Late Sicán Period

    The Late Sicán period began around 1100 CE and ended with the Chimú conquest of the Lambayeque region around 1375 CE.

    Around 1020 CE, a major drought lasting thirty years occurred at Sicán. At the time of the drought, the Sicán Deity, so closely tied to the ocean and water in general, was at the center of Sicán religion, and appeared in most major artistic motifs. The catastrophic changes in weather were thus linked to the Sicán Deity, mainly to the failure of the deity to mediate nature for the Sicán people. The Sicán ceremonies (and mounds on which they were performed) were supposed to ensure that there was an abundance of resources for the people. After thirty years of uncertainty in respect to nature, the temples that were the center of Middle Sicán religion and elite power were burned and abandoned, between 1050 and 1100 CE.

    Perhaps the ancestor cult and aggrandizing of the elites caused too much resentment. Coupled with the drought that surely weakened agriculture in the area, the tolerance of the common population plummeted, forcing the removal of the political and religious leadership at Sicán.

    Religious mounds at Túcume. The last capital of the Sicán culture was located just south of the La Leche River, where they built twenty-six new religious mounds.

    The Sicán then built a new capital at Túcume, also known as Purgatorio by local people today, where they thrived for another 250 years. The Sicán were able to build twenty-six ceremonial mounds in this new capital in that time period. However, in 1375, the Chimú conquered the area, marking the end of the Sicán era.

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