Something a little different! Role of Climate Change and Natural Disasters in the Rise and Fall of Cultures in the Early Andes

By Seth Chagi

If you can, read of academia here:

Role of Climate Change and Natural Disasters in the Rise and Fall of Cultures in the Early Andes

One of the greatest mysteries that have yet to be fully solved about early Andean cultures on the coast of Peru, is the dramatic change that occurred around 5,800 BP. Around this time there is a dramatic cultural change in how societies work was completely upturned. Following this time, we see completely different signs of living and lifestyles even at the same sites and areas. How the peoples of early Peru adapted to these changes, which we are going to discuss in a moment, is nothing short of miraculous. Going from a culture of say, the Supe Valley on the Coast of Peru, which had intensive net fishing irrigation, fields of cotton, no looms ,and no weaving or ceramics, to societies that soon replaced them with large ceremonial complexes, people who were reliant on food crops, pottery, and weaving. What happened? 

At first, around 8,800 cal yr BP we see societies along the coast that are very complex and are sustained by the ocean itself, and the benefits of the Humboldt Current that we have discussed so much in class.[1] According to Richardson III and Sandwiess, between 8,800-5,800 cal yr BP is a murky area in time. There is little known, but there are some sites that we know of such as Siches, Ostra, Paloma, and The Ring Site. These cultures were sophisticated hunter-gatherers who had a subsistence-based maritime lifestyle. [2] However, they did not have any temple structures or large ceremonial buildings. These people survived off the sustenance of the ocean for thousands of years until the climate began to change again during the middle of the Holocene. Between 5,.800-3,200 cal yr BP, during the Middle Preceramic Period El Niño was infrequent but began to reoccur with more frequency every 50-100 years. [3] El Niño had great effects on the coastal cultures of early Peru, however as we see the El Nińos increase, the cultures that existed at the time begin to fade, and we enter a new era. But what were the causes of this? Was it the El Nińos? Or was it caused by other natural disasters? I guess we will have to find out. As Sandwiess and Quilter argue, natural forces had a great effect on the people of Coastal Peru during the Early Preceramic, we will examine if these occurrences truly changed the way the early Peruvians lived. 

Prior to 5,800 BP, there was a stable, and successful set of cultures along the northern coast of Peru. Thanks to the archaeological record of sea mollusks as shown by Sandweiss [4], we can see how the climate changed during these years. In his paper titled “Mid Holocene Climate and Culture Change in Coastal Peru” Sandweiss argues that as the El Nińos began to return, which we can see in the record around 7,800 years ago, there is a drastic cultural shift, one in which the current cultures could no longer survive in, which aligns with the arguments that Sandweiss proposed in his paper, as well as to what others have said, such as Jason Nesbitt in his paper “El Niño and second-millennium BC monument building at Huaca Cortada (Moche Valley, Peru). Focusing on the Super Valley, he also supports the idea of earlier cultures with sea-based lifestyles that survived for a good few millennium, but that something in the mid-Holocene occurred, in Nesbitt’s case, he argues that the El Nińos even changed the geophysical topography of the sea ridges, changing the way the coasts worked from the bottom up. Which would have had an immense effect on the people using the local coasts to survive.[5]

The cultures that we see at this time, while less complex than what would follow, with their large ceremonial centers and stone architecture, these cultures lived in a variety of ways. From the earliest inhabitants living in caves and whalebone-built structures, these people seemed well suited to their land, and what was going on. The weather was more temperate in the early Holocene, and the coasts provided everything that these cultures needed. Soon they would begin to spread inland, and as they did so, the complexities of the societies would build. We know of sites such as Siches, Ostra, Paloma, and The Ring Site, which were maritime villages where hunter-gatherers lived and survived successfully for thousands of years without ceremonial architecture. However, according to Sandwiess and Quilter, there was a major shift coming. [6] Around 5,800 cal year BP we begin to see a change in the climate and the weather proposes all the authors in which we have read about, the effects that were to follow are what we will look at next. 

The role of climate change around the war 5,800 cal year BP can almost not be argued with. We have the data to support that the frequency of El Niño increased drastically, starting slowly in the mid-Holocene, leading to modern-day levels 3,400 BP. The time in between, however, was a tumultuous time. According to Sandwiess in his paper about the role of Catastrophism in the fall of early Andean cultures, the answers are right in front of our faces. Citing examples such as what Junius Bird was saying in the 1940s, where he was convinced that cultural trends changed and were altered by El Niño activity. [7] As Quilter notes, the observations were based on the Virú Valley River Profile. It was clear to see how the flooding of the plain fields, and down into the small towns and villages would have caused a great amount of damage. 

However, as Nesbitt says, “Disaster is largely a cultural construct, and that environmental perturbation is only a problem when ancient societies are unable to adjust to it successfully.” [8] As Sandwiess notes, there are also other forces at work that are changing the cultural views and aspects of survival for the people of the early Andean Coast. Peru is a very seismically active area. There is evidence at sites such as Caral and Aspero, of massive earthquake damage. Entire platforms shifting, pillars being destroyed, and staircases splitting and moving in different directions.[9] As we all know today as Californians, earthquakes are nothing to make fun of. Whether this was more of a challenge to overcome than those posed by the increasing frequency of El Niño, seems unclear. The authors of various papers seem to agree on the idea that catastrophism caused the fall of these civilizations, but whether it was climactic change, seismic activity, or a loss in the will to maintain that society, due to the challenges posed, we may not ever know. These terrifying events led people to come together more, and perhaps to look for a reason for all these disasters that seemed to be befalling them. As their cultures declined, the Andean peoples turned to the gods for salvation. 

Between 5,800 BP and 4,000BP, the climate, while still changing, is slowly starting to settle down, the warm waters turned cold. Environments under and above twelve degrees latitude had completely different experiences. Prior to 5,800, south of twelve degrees, the air was hyper arid, with a low sea level, but when the sea levels rose, and El Niño returned, coinciding with the changes we see in the archaeological record, Sandwiess and Quilter say, along with the damage that once in a lifetime earthquakes were causing, the people, as many spiritual people do, turned to the supernatural. [10]We begin to see the construction of temples, mounds, and ceremonial complexes. In his paper, Nesbitt claims that as things got worse, the Andean people turned to human sacrifices, more and more often in an attempt to appease the gods.[11] This can be seen in their art, culture, and sometimes even in some of their burials. Whether it was the gods or the natural phases of the Earth, the climate began to settle towards the later side of the Holocene, to levels that were more tolerable to the culture that was now established. While there is still some debate as to what caused the abandonment, and total cultural change of the early Andean people, many authors, including the ones cited here, agree that some aspect of Climate Change is one of the larger components. [12][13][14][15][16][17]

While early Andean cultures along the coast of Peru had a complex, and sophisticated way of living, surviving off the bounty of the ocean, where their towns and cities had easy access to the sea, changes in the morphology of the coast as well as climactic change and the destruction caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, the people of places like Caral and Aspero had to adapt or abandon their sites. Human sacrifice was one way in which they attempted to turn their luck around, but it would be a few thousand years before things would get better. Climate Change ended the early role of civilization along the coast of Peru. 


Costin, C (2022) Anthropology 429 Lectures.

Nesbitt, Jason. “El Niño and second-millennium BC monument building at Huaca Cortada (Moche Valley, Peru).” Antiquity 90, no. 351 (2016): 638-53.

Ortloff, Charles, and Michael Moseley. “2600-1800 BCE Caral.” Ñawpa Pacha 32, no. 2 (2013): 189-206.

Richardson, Richardson III, James B, and Daniel H Sandweiss. “Climate Change, El Ni~no and the Rise of Complex Society on the Peruvian Coast during the Middle Holocene.” El Ni~no, Catastrophism, and Culture Change in Ancient America (2008): 59-75.

Sandweiss, Daniel H, Kirk A Maasch, C Fred T Andrus, Elizabeth J Reitz, Richardson III, James B Richardson, Riedinger-Whitmore, Melanie Riedinger, and Harold B Rollins. “Mid-Holocene climate and culture change in coastal Peru.” Climate Change and Cultural Dynamics (2007): 25-50.

Sandweiss, Daniel H, Sol\’\is, Ruth Shady Sol, Michael E Moseley, David K Keefer, and Charles R Ortloff. “Environmental change and economic development in coastal Peru between 5,800 and 3,600 years ago.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 5 (2009): 1359-63.


[2]Richardson III, James B Richardson and Daniel H Sandweiss, “Climate Change, El Ni~no and the Rise of Complex Society on the Peruvian Coast during the Middle Holocene,” El Ni~no, Catastrophism, and Culture Change in Ancient America (2008).

[3]Richardson III, James B Richardson and Daniel H Sandweiss, “Climate.”

[4]Daniel H Sandweiss et al., “Mid-Holocene climate and culture change in coastal Peru,” Climate Change and Cultural Dynamics (2007),

[5]Jason Nesbitt, “El Niño and second-millennium BC monument building at Huaca Cortada (Moche Valley, Peru),” Antiquity 90, no. 351 (2016),

[6]Sandweiss et al., “Mid.”

[7]Sandweiss et al., “Mid.”

[8]Nesbitt, “Niño.”

[9]Daniel H Sandweiss et al., “Environmental change and economic development in coastal Peru between 5,800 and 3,600 years ago,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 5 (2009),

[10]Sandweiss et al., “Environmental.”

[11]Nesbitt, “Niño.”

[12]Nesbitt, “Niño.”


[14]Charles Ortloff and Michael Moseley, “2600-1800 BCE Caral,” Ñawpa Pacha 32, no. 2 (2013),

[15]Richardson III, James B Richardson and Daniel H Sandweiss, “Climate.”

[16]Sandweiss et al., “Mid.”

[17]Sandweiss et al., “Environmental.”

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my B.A and then my PhD I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: