Who were the Wari?

Figure in a Litter, 600–1000 Peru, Wari style Ceramic and slip

Many people are familiar with the Inca Empire of South America, one of the most expansive empires in the history of world civilization, which was conquered by the Spanish after 1532 during the conquest of the Americas. Far less familiar are the histories of the civilizations that preceded the Incas, some of which date as far back as the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Among the various societies that arose in the Andean region, the Wari civilization flourished in central Peru during a period called the Middle Horizon, from AD 600–1000. This complex society is of particular interest to historians because it is a rare example of a “pristine” empire, meaning that it emerged as the first of its kind in a region where no prior empires existed. The Wari created their empire with no previous examples of conquest and expansion to draw upon, and in fact the Inca likely adopted many Wari innovations during the rise of their empire centuries later. Thus, the Wari represent a major development in Andean civilization, and learning about their society in the classroom will enrich students’ understanding of the history of the Americas.

Despite the influence of the Wari Empire on Andean social and cultural development, the history of Wari scholarship is relatively short. The Wari culture was first identified in the 1930s after the Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello uncovered an ancient city in 1931 near the modern city of Ayacucho, Peru. Tello called this culture the Wari after the name of the site he uncovered, which he later concluded to be their capital city. The great significance of Tello’s discovery lay in the fact that since the late nineteenth century, archaeologists had been finding artifacts throughout Peru with similar styles of iconography, but the source of this iconographic style remained unknown. Prior to the discovery and excavation of the city of Wari, this iconographic style was referred to as “Tiwanakoid,” linking it to a then-better-known Middle Horizon city called Tiwanaku, located near Lake Titicaca to the south. Tello’s discovery opened the door to the idea that another great civilization existed in the central highlands of Peru, alongside Tiwanaku, but it would be decades before there would be enough archaeological evidence to confirm that the Wari culture was the source of this “Tiwanakoid” style.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in uncovering Wari history is the fact that they never developed a written language and left no inscriptions that would otherwise provide critical clues to their customs and beliefs. Instead, the knowledge thus far gathered on the Wari has come entirely from studies of their material culture. Examples of Wari material culture include a large body of richly decorated pottery and textiles, a distinctive architectural style, mortuary remains, and other remnants of settlement patterns such as trash pits and road systems. All of the objects included in the exhibition Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes (October 28, 2012–January 6, 2013) have contributed in one way or another to modern-day knowledge about the Wari civilization. This momentous exhibition brings together 167 objects gathered together from public and private collections all over the world. It is only the second exhibition in the world to be devoted to the arts of the Wari Empire, and the first of its kind in North America.

Among the central themes to be explored by Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes are the relationship between religion and political power in Wari expansion, gift-giving via feasts and offerings as a political and social act, and the tapestry-woven tunic as a platform for innovation in design and mathematics. The following guide elaborates on these and other related themes as they might relate to particular subjects taught in schools. This guide is structured according to academic subjects, beginning with an explanation of how the content of this exhibition relates to a given subjects and includes a listing of relevant content standards for the state of Ohio. This is followed by a more in-depth examination of two themes per subject that can be discussed in light of the objects on display as well as a few questions intended to spark class discussion. However, due to the interdisciplinary nature of this exhibition and this packet, many of the themes may work well with the curricula and content standards of more than one subject. Therefore, it is advised that teachers review the themes under every subject heading before determining which themes are most applicable to his or her particular curriculum. A note on the topic of human sacrifice. Although the topic of human sacrifice has not been highlighted as a theme for this guide, images of sacrifice are nevertheless present in several objects on display.

The most common representations of human sacrifice in Wari art are depicted through images of trophy heads, or of the supernatural sacrificer personage who holds a knife or axe in one hand and a trophy head or body part in the other. Like other ancient Andean societies, the Wari practiced trophy head-taking—most likely of their enemies—as an act of warfare, a demonstration of political power, or as a profoundly efficacious offering to supernatural forces in exchange for favorable conditions in the natural environment. Such images indicate that the Wari used violence, among other strategies, to conquer other societies and expand their empire


By Andrea F. Vazquez
Source: “Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes”
The Cleveland Museum of Art


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