Spending an afternoon at Lima’s Museo Larco—which houses one of the most extensive collections of pre-Columbian artifacts—is a lesson in Peruvian history and the long narrative of human civilization.
Story and Photos by Deborah Sanborn | Outpost Editor-in-Chief | June 2019
When I walk into the Larco in Lima it’s nothing like I expect—no grand halls hidden from view or camouflaged by the building’s modest exterior. Instead, I enter a rather sprawling, low-rise, white-stucco and once-private mansion with an unassuming entryway that is tucked into the residential neighbourhood of Pueblo Libre in Peru’s beautifully raucous, stunningly bustling capital.
Spending an afternoon at Lima’s pioneering Museo Larco—which houses one of the most extensive collections of pre-Columbian artifacts in the world—is a lesson not just in Peruvian history but in the long and often mysterious narrative of human civilization. (The word “pre-Columbian” is key, referring literally to artifacts dated to cultures and eras that preceded Christopher Columbus’s iconic but controversial arrival in the Western Hemisphere.)
In Peru and greater South America, I would argue, it also means pre-Pizarro—a reference to the Spanish explorer who conquered Peru’s famed Inca Empire in 1532, and cemented Spanish rule and influence over much of the southern continent for hundreds of years.
A once-privately owned collection of the Larco family of Peru, whose patriarch began collecting artifacts in the early 20th century and whose son Rafael was a self-taught archaeologist with an insatiable curiosity about Peru’s ancient history—so much so that he began excavating sites in the 1920s at his own expense (well, his father’s), first in northern Peru (where the iconic Moche culture thrived), and then throughout the country, with his own technically-uncertified hands—the museum is astounding in its voluminous collection. (Of course Rafael’s family was wealthy, and he was well-educated at Cornell University in the United States.)
In just a few short years—which tells you something about the treasure trove of artifacts and antiquity beneath and upon Peruvian soil—Rafael and his father, according to the Larco, had amassed a collection that numbered in the thousands. With no place to put them, Rafael converted the Chiclin Hacienda (a family-owned property) into a museum in 1926—opening it officially on July 28, the day Peruvians celebrate their independence from Spain.
By the 1950s, with the collection now burgeoning and Rafael’s desire for all Peruvians to have greater access to it, he purchased a mansion in Lima—which, like much of Peru’s colonial buildings, was constructed atop a seventh-century pre-Columbian temple—and converted it to a museum, determined to not just preserve but to catalog Peru’s stunningly-rich history. Through the decades the Larco amassed a spectacular collection of artifacts and antiquities—now more than 45,000 pieces—not only through excavation, but also by purchasing pieces and by encouraging donations.
And what a collection it is! I saw exquisite pottery, and highly expressive ceramics with fantastic detailing and themes of family, motherhood, sexuality, mythology, social power, death and the afterlife, Mother Earth and the natural world, the cosmos, and everyday feudal life. (The museum is also known for its erotic section and blatantly phallic pieces, which are incredibly funny to look at, and fantastic reminders of our common humanity—particularly the homoerotic pieces, which are wonderful reminders of how consistent the narrative of same-sex interactions and relationships has been in human history.)
The museum also houses finely-woven cloth textiles, and gold and silver pieces of jewellery, headdresses and breastplates that would knock your socks off for their artistry and pricelessness.
Oh, the stories these pieces tell of the numerous Indigenous peoples who lived in this part of the world for thousands and thousands of years—the Moche, the Nazca, the Puquina and Inca cultures among them.
(A guide in Peru was very clear we should use the term “culture” or “societies” to describe the concept of an identifiable group within regions in Peru—and not “tribe,” not “ethnic group”.)
The Larco pieces were excavated from settlements, and sometimes once-elaborate grave sites and burial grounds, and can date back as far as at least 3,000 but even 5,000 years. As it turns out—and I admit I did not know this—Peru is one of only five ancient cultures that can lay claim to the definition “cradle of civilization.” (Like many, I thought the lands of ancient Iraq was the only “cradle of civilization.”)
The five simultaneously (well, not absolutely, but apparently close enough) are the oldest human societies and “were developing wholly independently of each other”—which is how historians describe it—and doing so on lands and continents that were very far apart. The five are: Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and Ancient Egypt (along the Nile)—also known as the Fertile Crescent; the Indus Valley (along the Indo-Gangetic Plain); China (along the Yellow River); Mesoamerica (modern Mexico and Central America); and Andean South America (particularly Peru).
What exactly were they doing that nets them the designation? Leaving behind a nomadic lifestyle, developing human settlements, building structures, learning to farm (more or less), creating communities and the sense of a permanent place.
The theory goes that the five were able to develop because they settled near renewable sources of water (mostly rivers) and fertile land that allowed for food production—humans were learning to make food rather than roam nomadically to find it. Peru—and specifically northern Peru—was settled so early in human history because of its access to the glacier waters and the rivers and fertile valleys of the spectacular Andes Mountains.
I learned most of this at the Larco Museum in Lima in just one afternoon—wandering in and out of its cozy and lightly-lit rooms, where the vibrant yellow gold of a god’s breastplate bathed the space in a soft glow.
I will let these photos paint you a better picture of what’s in store, if you ever get a chance to visit the Larco in Lima—oh, that’s another thing I should tell you: maybe one of Rafael Hoyle’s best contributions to history and storytelling was to leave a legacy of unconditional public access: unlike most museums, you can view and peruse through its entire collection, including the approximate 30,000 artifacts in its storeroom.
And, according to the museum, it was one of the first in the Americas to digitally catalogue its entire collection, thereby making it accessible to just about anybody in the world. Access is open and free, though you do need special permission via registration (which you can apply for online at www.museolarco.org).
If, like me, you get goosebumps when you see ancient history in such exquisite detail, in such tactile terms and so up close and personal, you’ll love your visit to the Larco. It’s a jolt of a reminder that humans and their story did not begin in Europe, and certainly not in the 20th century—much to our chagrin.
- With great appreciation to the Larco Museum in Lima for permission to take and publish these photos—go, if you can! Deborah Sanborn is the editor-in-chief of Outpost Travel Media. Read explorer Jeff Fuchs’s take on trekking across Andes valleys to Machu Picchu.