In 1926 the Peruvian archaeologist Rafael Larco identified a distinctive cultural pattern that characterized the north coast of Peru during much of the second and first millennia bce. While the Cupisnique culture was once considered to be simply a coastal variant of the Chavín culture, it was later recognized as an independent cultural tradition that provided one of the sources of inspiration for the slightly later Chavín culture. Although the Cupisnique culture was originally defined on the basis of fine pottery from burials in the Cupisnique drainage and adjacent Chicama valley, late-twentieth-century research favored a broader definition. As currently understood, the Cupisnique culture extended along the Peruvian coast from the Virú valley up to the Lambayeque drainage, and it maintained close relations with adjacent highland cultures and the occupants of the coastal valleys immediately to the north and south.
The center of Cupisnique culture was the rich but arid lands of the lower coastal valleys, and its economy was based mainly on irrigation agriculture and fishing. Besides numerous shoreline fishing villages and agricultural hamlets, there were larger centers where monumental architecture was built for civil ceremonial activities. The largest known Cupisnique sites, Purulén in the Zaña drainage and Caballo Muerto in the Moche valley, have numerous mounds suggesting a pattern of organization very different from that found on the central coast. Public constructions were built of stone or conical adobes and usually featured combinations of low tiered platforms, elaborate colonnades, massive central inset stairways, and sunken rectangular courtyards. In many cases the public architecture was decorated with painted or sculpted religious iconography featuring feline, ophidian, and avian imagery.
Much of the information on the Cupisnique culture derives from cemeteries excavated by Larco and others. People of the Cupisnique culture buried their dead in irregular oval pits dug into subsoil. The carved bone rings, shell ornaments, necklaces of semiprecious stones (including lapis lazuli from northern Chile) and shell, and high-quality anthracite mirrors that often accompanied the deceased suggest a special interest in personal adornment. Among the other items left in the tombs were pottery vessels, especially modeled or incised stirrup-spouted bottles, and, more rarely, carved bone tablets or spatulas believed to have been used to ingest hallucinogenic snuff during rituals. Among the most distinctive Cupisnique artifacts are elaborate stone mace heads, perhaps used as symbols of authority, and ceramic stamps or seals, which may have been used for skin painting or decorating cloth.
Sometime after 500 bce the north coast became integrated into the Chavín sphere of interaction, and Cupisnique culture, while still distinctive, came to share features with cultures in central and southern Peru. When the Chavín sphere of interaction collapsed at approximately 200 bce the Cupisnique culture was replaced by a cultural pattern known as Salinar.
A more detailed discussion is in Richard L. Burger, Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization (1992). A summary of Rafael Larco's pioneering research is available in his essay, "A Culture Sequence for the North Coast of Peru," in The Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 2, edited by Julian Steward (1946). For a widely available article on the excavations at Caballo Muerto, see Thomas Pozorski, "The Early Horizon Site of Huaca de los Reyes: Societal Implications," in American Antiquity 45 (1980): 100-110. The Huaca Lucia investigations are described in Izumi Shimada, "The Batan Grande-La Leche Archaeological Project—The First Two Seasons," in Journal of Field Archaeology 8, no. 4 (1981): 405-446. One of the few detailed discussions of Cupisnique symbolism is Lucy Salazar-burger and Richard L. Burger, "La araña en la iconografía del horizonte temprano en la costa norte del Perú," in Beiträge zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Archäologie 4 (1983): 213-253.
Richard L. Burger