April 2001

From Field Museum

Field Museum anthropologists establish date and importance of the Americas' oldest city

CHICAGO - New radiocarbon dates of plant fibers indicate that the site of Caral (120 miles north of Lima, Peru) was home to the earliest known urban settlement - with monumental corporate architecture and irrigation agriculture - in the New World. The surprising evidence pushes the development of these important advances in the Americas back to as early as 2627 B.C. - a time when the pyramids were being built in Egypt.

"Our findings show that a very large, complex society had arisen on the coast of Peru centuries earlier than anyone thought," said Jonathan Haas, PhD, MacArthur curator of anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum. The new research is being published in Science April 27, 2001, in a paper coauthored by Haas and his colleagues: Dr. Ruth Shady, director of the Anthropology Museum at la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and research associate at The Field Museum; and Dr. Winifred Creamer, associate professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University and adjunct curator at The Field Museum.

Sitting on a dry desert terrace above the green valley floor, Caral is one of 18 large contemporary sites in the Supe Valley on the Pacific Coast of Peru. Together, the sites indicate a remarkably advanced civilization for this period - despite a lack of ceramics that has puzzled anthropologists for years.

This lack of ceramics contributed to the Supe Valley sites being largely overlooked ever since they were first noted almost 100 years ago. But this new research has established that Caral thrived some 4,600 years ago - even before the introduction of ceramics in Peru - and played a pivotal role in the social, political and economic development of civilization in South America.

"The location offers an opportunity to investigate one of the fundamental questions of Western archeology and social science, namely, what is the origin of complex, centralized, highly organized society in the Americas?" Dr. Haas said. "This is a project that comes along once in a generation and offers opportunities rarely glimpsed in the field of archeology."

The radiocarbon samples from Caral were taken in connection with Dr. Shady's on-going research. Excavations at the site are focused on assessing the range and function of architectural features and determining the sequence and construction methods of the site's monumental mounds.

Pyramids dominate landscape

Caral is dominated by a central zone containing six large platform mounds arranged around a huge public plaza area. The largest of these mounds, "Piramide Mayor," is truly remarkable: 60-feet high and 450-by-500 feet at the base. Research indicates that all six central mounds were built in only one or two phases, indicating the presence of complex planning, centralized decision-making, and mobilization of large labor forces.

The terraced mounds were used for administrative purposes. Stairs, rooms, courtyards and other structures were constructed on top of the pyramids as well as on the side terraces. Excavations will determine whether there were rooms, passageways or even tombs inside the mounds.

Other architecture at the site indicates a high level of cultural complexity. The varied styles and quality of Caral's housing point to a richly stratified society. And three sunken circular plazas at the site testify to the emergence of a well-organized religion with open, public ceremonies. The largest of these sunken plazas is 150 feet in diameter. Such plazas are an architectural form that continued throughout the Andes for several thousand years.

Ultimately, the social, political and religious system founded in the Supe Valley provided ancestral roots for the great civilization of the Incas, who ruled the Andes some 4,000 years later when the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century A.D.

Other villages in Peru were occupied before 2600 B.C., and some of them even had small-scale public platforms or stone rings. However, all of the sites in the Americas occupied in the 3rd millennium B.C. are dwarfed by the 200-acre size of Caral and its huge monuments.

Of the 18 recorded preceramic sites in the Supe Valley, 10 are more than 60 acres in size. Any one of these ten, if taken alone, would probably be the largest settlement in the New World during the 3rd millennium B.C. Collectively, this concentration of urban settlements - all with monumental architecture and all based on irrigation - is simply unparalleled in any period.

Caral's location some 14 miles inland from the Pacific is also important. Because the Peruvian coast is extremely arid, the only source of water for fields is the Supe River, and the only way to get the river water to arable land is by way of irrigation canals. Thus, as Dr. Creamer noted, "the farmers at Caral may have been the Americas' first pioneers to build canals and open the vast potential of channeling river water to rich desert lands surrounding a river's valley bottom."

Caral's domesticated plants included squash, beans and cotton. No corn has been found, and its absence establishes for the first time that this starchy staple was not necessary to the development of a complex society in South America.

In sum, this research shows that Caral and the Supe Valley is exceptional because of:

  • its early date for an urban center
  • its large size
  • the presence of irrigation agriculture
  • its huge, monumental architecture
  • its pristine, relatively unexplored condition
  • the existence of nearby contemporary sites of comparable magnitude

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004

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