Lost Cultures: The Story of the Sican People from Peru

Humankind has flourished over the globe, ever since our ancestors gathered the courage to go and explore the unknown. Since the time of the Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, civilizations have flourished and fallen, and accounts of many of these ancient civilizations have been lost in the annals of time. One such lost civilization is that of the Sican people, who thrived in the Lambayeque Valley of Peru roughly between AD 750 and 1375.

The Sican have a mysterious origin story. While some scholars believe they might be direct descendants of the Moche people, others believe that the Sican mostly broke off from the 8th century Wari civilization in order to establish their own culture. However, legend has it that that Naymlap, the mythical leader of the Sican, sailed into the waters of Lambayeque Valley with his people and built temples and palaces on the newly discovered lands.

After his death, Naymlap’s 12 grandsons ruled the Sican until a catastrophic event hit the land. The story goes that one of the grandsons did the bidding of a witch by moving a female stone idol—something he shouldn’t have done. The act caused rains and floods that brought massive destruction to the culture. While this is definitely an exciting story to tell grandchildren, scientific analysis of glacial ice cores has revealed that the likely cause of the torrential floods was an El Niño weather event probably occurred in that area at around AD 1100 (El Niño and La Niña are complex weather patterns caused by variations in ocean temperatures).

The Sican people used a copper monetary system, which they abandoned after the El Nino event. Most of their political and religious structures, as well as one of their major cities, Batan Grande, suffered significant damage during the flood. However, some believe the buildings may have been deliberately burned, as the archaeological evidence on the events of the flood is still unclear. After the catastrophe, the Sican established a new capital at Tucume. Their civilization was eventually lost after they were conquered by Chimu warriors in the 14th century.

Like their ancestors the Moche, the Sican possessed knowledge of advanced irrigation techniques, which allowed agriculture to thrive. Agriculture was the purvey of the elite class, who would pass on the surplus food to the artisans and labourers, who would in turn support the elites with their skilled craft. The Sican culture had some interesting burial practices. One’s social status would determine their burial position: seated for high elites, and extended or flexed for commoners. While the Sican weren’t a warlike people, there is some evidence of ritual mass human sacrifice to celebrate death—a trait they shared with a lot of South American cultures of that age.

In terms of social practises, the Sican were a flamboyant bunch. The elite class would wear tunics, gloves, and beautifully detailed gold jewellery, which they would accentuate with showy feathered headdresses. The most distinct artefacts unearthed were pieces of polished black pottery, which featured beautiful gold metalwork inlaid with turquoise. In fact, the Sican will forever be remembered as a people who produced some of the most celebrated pieces of art from the Andes.

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