The earliest evidence of human presence in Peruvian territory has been dated to approximately 10,560 BCE. The oldest known complex society in Peru and the Americas, the Norte Chico civilization, flourished along the coast of the Pacific Ocean between 3000 and 1800 BCE. These early developments were followed by archaeological cultures such as Cupisnique, Chavin, Paracas, Mochica, Nazca, Wari, and Chimú. In the 15th century, the Incas emerged as a powerful state which, in the span of a century, formed the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. Andean societies were based on agriculture, using techniques such as irrigation and terracing; camelid husbandry and fishing were also important. Organization relied on reciprocity and redistribution because these societies had no notion of market or money.

In the years between 1524 and 1526 smallpox, introduced from Panama and preceding the Spanish conquerors swept through the Inca Empire. The death of the Incan ruler Huayna Capac as well as most of his family including his heir, caused the fall of the Incan political structure and contributed to the civil war between the brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar.

In 1532, a group of conquistadors and Native Americans led by Francisco Pizarro defeated and captured Inca Emperor Ata-wallpa. Francisco Pizarro demanded gold and silver in exchange for the release of the Sapa Inca, and although Francisco Pizarro received a room of gold and the two following rooms with silver, up to the level of the reach of Ata-wallpa’s arm, Ata-wallpa was executed and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Empire and imposed Spanish rule. Ten years later, the Spanish Crown established the Viceroyalty of Peru, which included all of its South American colonies. Viceroy Francisco de Toledo reorganized the country in the 1570s with silver mining as its main economic activity and Amerindian forced labor as its primary workforce.

Peruvian bullion provided revenue for the Spanish Crown and fueled a complex trade network that extended as far as Europe and the Philippines. However, by the 18th century, declining silver production and economic diversification greatly diminished royal income. In response, the Crown enacted the Bourbon Reforms, a series of edicts that increased taxes and partitioned the Viceroyalty of Peru. The new laws provoked Túpac Amaru II‘s rebellion and other revolts, all of which were defeated.

In the early 19th century, while most of South America was swept by wars of independence, Peru remained a royalist stronghold. As the elite hesitated between emancipation and loyalty to the Spanish Monarchy, independence was achieved only after the military campaigns of José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar. During the early years of the Republic, endemic struggles for power between military leaders caused political instability. National identity was forged during this period, as Bolivarian projects for a Latin American Confederation foundered and a union with Bolivia proved ephemeral. Between the 1840s and 1860s, Peru enjoyed a period of stability under the presidency of Ramón Castilla through increased state revenues from guano exports. However, by the 1870s, these resources had been squandered, the country was heavily indebted, and political in-fighting was again on the rise.

Peru was defeated by Chile in the 1879–1883 War of the Pacific, losing the provinces of Arica and Tarapacá in the treaties of Ancón and Lima. During the Chilean occupation of Lima, Chilean military authorities turned the University of San Marcos and the recently inaugurated Palacio de la Exposición into barracks, raided medical schools and other educational institutions, plundered the contents of the Peruvian National Library and transported thousands of books (including many centuries-old original volumes) along with much capital stock to Santiago de Chile, and carried away a series of monuments and artwork that had adorned the city. Internal struggles after the war were followed by a period of stability under the Civilista Party, which lasted until the onset of the authoritarian regime of Augusto B. Leguía. The Great Depression caused the downfall of Leguía, renewed political turmoil, and the emergence of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). The rivalry between this organization and a coalition of the elite and the military defined Peruvian politics for the following three decades.

In 1968, the Armed Forces, led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado, staged a coup against president Fernando Belaunde. The new regime undertook radical reforms aimed at fostering development but failed to gain widespread support. In 1975, Velasco was forcefully replaced as president by General Francisco Morales Bermúdez, who paralyzed reforms and oversaw the reestablishment of democracy.

During the 1980s, Peru faced a considerable external debt, ever-growing inflation, a surge in drug trafficking, and massive political violence. Some 70,000 people died during the conflict between state forces and Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. Under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori (1990–2000), the country started to recover; however, accusations of authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights violations forced his resignation after the controversial 2000 elections. Since the end of the Fujimori regime, Peru has tried to fight corruption while sustaining economic growth; since 2006 the president is Alan García.

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