Civilization In Americas: 1,000 Years Older Than Expected!
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Thanks to Wes Wyatt.
PERU'S CARAL SUGGESTS CIVILIZATION EMERGED IN THE
AMERICAS 1,000 YEARS EARLIER THAN EXPERTS BELIEVED
By John F. Ross
pdf file, complete with photos:
Six earth-and-rock mounds rise out of the windswept desert of the Supe
Valley near the coast of Peru. Dunelike and immense, they appear to be
nature's handiwork, forlorn outposts in an arid region squeezed between the
Pacific Ocean and the folds of the Andean Cordillera. But looks deceive.
These are human-made pyramids, and compelling new evidence indicates they
are the remains of a city that flourished nearly 5,000 years ago. If true,
it would be the oldest urban center in the Americas and among the most
ancient in all the world.
Research developed by Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solís of San Marcos
University suggests that Caral, as the 150-acre complex of pyramids, plazas
and residential buildings is known, was a thriving metropolis as Egypt's
great pyramids were being built. The energetic archaeologist believes that
Caral may also answer nagging questions about the long-mysterious origins of
the Inca, the civilization that once stretched from modern-day Ecuador to
central Chile and gave rise to such cities as Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Caral
may even hold a key to the origins of civilizations everywhere.
Though discovered in 1905, Caral first drew little attention, largely
because archaeologists believed the complex structures were fairly recent.
But the monumental scale of the pyramids had long tantalized Shady. "When I
first arrived in the valley in 1994, I was overwhelmed," she says. "This
place is somewhere between the seat of the gods and the home of man." She
began excavations two years later, braving primitive conditions on a tight
Fourteen miles from the coast and 120 miles north of Peru's capital city of
Lima, Caral lies in a desert region that lacks paved roads, electricity and
public water. Shady, who enlisted 25 Peruvian soldiers to help with the
excavations, often used her own money to advance the work.
For two months she and her crew searched for the broken remains of pots and
containers, called potsherds, that most such sites contain. Not finding any
only made her more excited; it meant Caral could be what archaeologists term
pre-ceramic, or existing before the advent of pot-firing technology in the
area. Shady eventually concluded that Caral predated Olmec settlements to
the north by 1,000 years. But colleagues remained skeptical. She needed
In 1996, Shady's team began the mammoth task of excavating Pirámide Mayor,
the largest of the pyramids. After carefully clearing away several
millennia's worth of rubble and sand, they unearthed staircases, circular
walls covered with remnants of colored plaster, and squared brickwork.
Finally, in the foundation, they found the preserved remains of reeds woven
into bags, known as shicras. The original workers, she surmised, must have
filled these bags with stones from a hillside quarry a mile away and laid
them atop one another inside retaining walls, gradually giving rise to the
city of Caral's immense structures.
Shady knew that the reeds were ideal subjects for radiocarbon dating and
could make her case. In 1999, she sent samples of them to Jonathan Haas at
Chicago's Field Museum and to Winifred Creamer at Northern Illinois
University. In December 2000, Shady's suspicions were confirmed: the reeds
were 4,600 years old. She took the news calmly, but Haas says he "was
virtually in hysterics for three days afterward."
In the April 27, 2001, issue of the journal Science, the three
archaeologists reported that Caral and the other ruins of the Supe Valley
are "the locus of some of the earliest population concentrations and
corporate architecture in South America."
The news stunned other scientists.
"It was almost unbelievable," says Betty Meggers, an archaeologist at the
Smithsonian Institution. "This data pushed back the oldest known dates for
an urban center in the Americas by more than 1,000 years."
What amazed archaeologists was not just the age but the complexity and scope
of Caral. Pirámide Mayor alone covers an area nearly the size of four
football fields and is 60 feet tall. A 30-foot-wide staircase rises from a
sunken circular plaza at the foot of the pyramid, passing over three
terraced levels until it reaches the top of the platform, which contains the
remains of an atrium and a large fireplace. Thousands of manual laborers
would have been needed to build such a mammoth project, not even counting
the many architects, craftsmen, supervisors and other managers. Inside a
ring of platform pyramids lies a large sunken amphitheater, which could have
held many hundreds of people during civic or religious events. Inside the
amphitheater, Shady's team found 32 flutes made of pelican and condor bones.
And, in April 2002, they uncovered 37 cornets of deer and llama bones.
"Clearly, music played an important role in their society," says Shady.
The perimeter of Caral holds a series of smaller mounds, various buildings
and residential complexes. Shady discovered a hierarchy in living
arrangements: large, well-kept rooms atop the pyramids for the elite,
ground-level complexes for craftsmen, and shabbier outlying shantytowns for
But why had Caral been built in the first place? More important, why would
people living comfortably in small communities perched on the Pacific Ocean
with easy access to abundant marine food choose to move inland to an
inhospitable desert? If she could answer this question, Shady believed she
might begin to unravel one of the knottiest questions in the field of
anthropology today: What causes civilizations to arise? And what was it
about the desert landscape of Peru's Supe Valley that caused a complex,
hierarchical society to flourish there?
Her excavations convinced Shady that Caral had served as a major trade
center for the region, ranging from the rain forests of the Amazon to the
high forests of the Andes. She found fragments of the fruit of the achiote,
a plant still used today in the rain forest as an aphrodisiac. And she found
necklaces of snails and the seeds of the coca plant, neither of which was
native to Caral.
This rich trading environment, Shady believes, gave rise to an elite group
that did not take part in the production of food, allowing them to become
priests and planners, builders and designers. Thus, the class distinctions
elemental to an urban society emerged.
But what sustained such a trading center and drew travelers to it? Was it
food? Shady and her team found the remains of sardines and anchovies, which
must have come from the coast 14 miles to the west, in the excavations. But
they also found evidence that the Caral people ate squash, sweet potatoes
and beans. Shady theorized that Caral's early farmers diverted area rivers
into trenches and canals, which still crisscross the Supe Valley today, to
irrigate their fields. But because she found no traces of maize (corn) or
other grains, which can be traded or stored and used to tide a population
over in difficult times, she concluded that Caral's trade leverage was not
based on stockpiling food supplies.
It was evidence of another crop in the excavations that gave Shady the best
clue to the mystery of Caral's success. In nearly every excavated building,
her team discovered great quantities of cotton seeds, fibers and textiles.
Her theory fell into place when a large fishing net, unearthed at an
unrelated dig on Peru's coast, turned out to be as old as Caral. "The
farmers of Caral grew the cotton that the fishermen needed to make the
nets," Shady speculates. "And the fishermen gave them shellfish and dried
fish in exchange for these nets." In essence, the people of Caral enabled
fishermen to work with larger and more effective nets, which made the
resources of the sea more readily available.
The Caral people probably used dried squash as flotation devices for nets
and also as containers, thus obviating any need for ceramics.
Eventually Caral would spawn 17 other pyramid complexes scattered across the
35-square-mile area of the Supe Valley. Then, around 1600 b.c., for reasons
that may never be answered, the Caral civilization toppled, though it didn't
disappear overnight. "They had time to protect some of their architectural
structures, burying them discreetly," says Shady. Other nearby areas, such
as Chupacigarro, Lurihuasi and Miraya, became centers of power. But based on
Caral's size and scope, Shady believes that it is indeed the mother city of
the Incan civilization.
She plans to continue excavating Caral and says she would someday like to
build a museum on the site. "So many questions still remain," she says. "Who
were these people? How did they control the other populations? What was
their main god?"
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