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Chimú, Between 900 and 1460 ce the north coast of Peru was dominated by an empire controlled by an ethnic group called the Chimú. This empire, called by the Spanish "the Kingdom of Chimor," controlled at its maximum extent more than 620 miles of the Peruvian coast. The Chimú Empire is the only pre-Columbian Peruvian state other than the Incas for which there exists ethnohistoric information. The Incas had conquered the Chimú between 1460 and 1470, only sixty to seventy years before the European invasion. As a result, Spanish chroniclers were able to record a limited amount of information about the Chimú culture as it existed before the Inca conquest. Unfortunately, only a few fragments of this information from the chronicles have survived. These bits of information, together with Spanish legal documents of the early colonial period and recent archaeological studies, have shed some light on the Chimú culture.

Chimú origin stories collected as oral histories by the Spaniards name Taycanamu as the legendary founder of the first Chimú dynasty. He is said to have arrived in the Moche valley after having traveled by sea on a balsa raft. Saying he was sent by a great lord across the sea to govern this land, he established a settlement in the lower valley. The son and the grandson of Taycanamu, whose names were Guacricaur and Ñançenpinco, established control over the entire valley. Archaeological and ethnohistoric data suggest that the Chimú then began a two-phase expansion.

Ñançenpinco, having completed the conquest of the Moche valley, began the first phase of imperial expansion around 1350. His conquests extended to the Jequetepeque valley in the north and the Santa valley in the south. Following a series of unnamed successors, the seventh or eighth king, Minchancaman, continued a second phase of imperial expansion. Completed by about 1450, the second expansion brought the empire to its maximum extent, from the Chillón valley in the south to Tumbes in the north. Shortly thereafter, the Chimú fell to the invading Inca armies. By 1470 the Inca had conquered Chimor and carried off Minchancaman (whom the Incas called Chimú Capac) to Cuzco as a royal hostage.

The economy of the Chimú Empire was based primarily on agriculture, but fishing and shellfish gathering were also important. Highly complex irrigation systems were used to bring water to the vast number of fields in the Chimú domain. These enormous networks of canals were the largest ever created in ancient Peru. The construction and maintenance of the canals and the proper distribution of water required an extensive administrative bureaucracy. Archaeological studies have identified a hierarchy of provincial administrative centers throughout the empire that provided state control over production. These centers carried out the will of the emperor, who governed from the imperial capital at Chan Chan. State construction projects such as canals, roads, and cities, and staffing of the imperial army, were accomplished by the citizens of the empire paying their taxes in labor.

Chimú society was a rigid hierarchy of social classes. The most powerful class, the hereditary nobility, exercised complete control over the production, storage, and redistribution of the wealth of the state. Luxury goods seem to have been concentrated in the hands of the elite. Class distinction was so absolute that kings were held to be divine. Kings and nobles were believed to have had a separate origin from that of commoners. Beyond the distinction between nobles and commoners, people were ranked by their occupation. In a society with an economy based on complex hydraulic works, people having technical knowledge were especially valued. Artisans, working for the elite, had special status and special privileges: they could wear ear spools and live next to the nobility.

Ethnohistoric accounts give some insight into the Chimú legal system. Society was regulated by strict laws with severe punishments for offenders. Chimú society seems to have been especially concerned about theft, which may have been regarded as an offense against the gods as well as against humans. Although artistic expression was standardized in terms of the motifs used, the Chimú were superb artisans and craftsmen. They particularly excelled in the arts of weaving and metalwork. Chimú goldsmiths were carried off to work for the Incas, and much of the golden treasure captured from the Inca by the Spanish was of Chimú origin.

See alsoArchaeology; Art: Pre-Columbian Art of South America; Chavín; Incas, The; Moche.


The classic source of the Chimú is John H. Rowe, "The Kingdom of Chimor," Acta Americana 6 (1948): 26-59. See also Michael Moseley and Kent C. Day, eds., Chan Chan: Andean Desert City (1982); and Michael Moseley and Alana Cordy-Collins, The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Leicht, Hermann. Arte y cultura preincaicos: Un milenio de imperio chimú (1963).

Ravines, Rogger, and Anthony P. Andrews Chanchán: Metrópoli chimú (1980).

                                   Gordon F. McEwan