A Peruvian site previously reported as the oldest city in the Americas actually is a much larger complex of as many as 20 cities with huge pyramids and sunken plazas sprawled over three river valleys, researchers report.
Caral. Click and drag photo to resize.
Construction started about 5,000 years ago — nearly 400 years before the first pyramid was built in Egypt — at a time when most people around the world were simple hunters and gatherers, a team from Northern Illinois University and Chicago's Field Museum reports in today's issue of the journal Nature.
The society and its people — known only as the Andeans — persisted in virtually the same form for 1,200 years before they were overrun by more warlike neighbors. That is the longest time any known ancient civilization survived, according to archaeologist Jonathan Haas of the Field, who led the expedition.
The results greatly expand understanding of how complex states began in the Americas.
"We are seeing the emergence of centralized decision-making, government and religion out of pristine conditions," Haas said.
"They were not following a pattern established by someone else. They were developing it on their own. An Andean culture was being invented in this area."
Haas said people always have thought the Americas were behind Europe, Africa and Asia in terms of developing civilizations. The new dates for the region show the two worlds developed more or less simultaneously.
The findings also are overturning the previous belief that South American civilization was based in coastal cities supported by fishing. Instead, Andean society seems to have been built primarily on cotton farming and trade, supported by fishing villages.
"There wasn't anything like this in the world as far as I can tell," Haas said.
The first city to be discovered, Caral in the Supe River Valley, about 120 miles north of Lima, lay virtually ignored for more than 100 years after its discovery, despite its nearly 100-foot-tall pyramids. It had no golden or jeweled artifacts, no pottery shards with which to date it, and no art or writing to indicate its origins.
It was not until Haas' team first reported radiocarbon dates for the site three years ago that scientists appreciated its antiquity. Those dates indicated that Caral was built about 2600 B.C., much earlier than thought possible.
A new series of dates from the Supe River Valley, as well as the nearby Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys, show construction began even earlier, about 3000 B.C.
The driving force may well have been the Humboldt Current, a broad band of cold water rich in marine life, which served as a valuable food source. But the climate turned much drier beginning about 3100 B.C., eliminating naturally growing fruits and vegetables that villagers relied on to supplement their diet of fish.
They began looking inland for new food sources, Haas said. "They figured out that if you take water out of the rivers and put it on desert land, the desert blooms and becomes very productive," he said. In the Norte Chico region, they could do so by hand-digging short canals.
They grew guava, beans, peppers and fruits — but not the corn or potatoes that researchers previously believed necessary to support a large population. But their most important crop was cotton, which was traded to coastal villagers to make fishing nets.
Andeans were peaceful. "They didn't fight with each other, and nobody else was big enough to fight with them," Haas said. But beginning about 1800 B.C., possibly because the soil began to lose its productivity, new buildings and monuments got smaller and the big cities began to decline.
New, larger cities appeared north and south of Norte Chico. Warfare eventually began, and Norte Chico was conquered and abandoned.
The only occupants today are scattered farmers.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
At the same time in which Egypt bloomed to borders of the Nile, 5,000 years in the past, a culture similar in complexity began to flourish in Peru, where archaeologists have found the remains of the oldest civilization in the Americas.
The Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady, who directed the investigations at the archaeological site of Caral, about 200 kilometers to the north of Lima, assured us that this city state "is the oldest distant spot in America" and destroys the conception that was held until today of the oldest urban centers in the world.
The city was discovered in 1905 but due to the absence of ceramics and other data, archeaologists failed to recognize the antiquity of the site.
"There is in the Americas no other site with a similar level of technological achievement and size for another 1000 or 1500 years", declared Shady, who has studied the archaeological remains of the coastal valley of Caral, in the North center of Peru since 1996.
Shady indicated that years ago the hypothesis was that perhaps Caral was indeed the oldest city of the Americas, but that this could not be verified until the carbon 14 test results on fibers recovered from several locations on the site were performed and analyzed.
"Those results allow us to affirm that this city was constructed by a society with a socio polítical organization already at the state level, which controlled the productivity of a huge area ---much greater in size than the one of the valley I was familiar with (to the north of Lima), and that had constructed establishments of urban type throughout this valley", she indicated.
According to scientific test results, Caral has an average antiquity of between 2,627 and 2,100 years before Christ approximately, while in the rest of America "the urban development does not begin until 1,550 years later in Peru '".
Shady indicated that Caral, where pyramids of more than 500 feet were found --of, walls of up to 20 meters of elevation and great stone platforms, "would have had between 500 and 600 years of occupation".
The archaeologist added that "in honor of the truth" it was a team of archaeologists of the Greater National University of San Marcos (UNMSM), that was the first to study the area and determined that it was the oldest city on the continent.
In this sense she emphasized that the anthropologists of the Field Museum de Chicago (the U.S.A.) Jonathan Haas and Winifer Krammer, of the University of Illinois, only contributed by making an economic contribution so that they were able to make twelve carbon tests, with the balance being paid by Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution.
"Haas and Krammer came to Caral and collaborated with us to obtain the samples that were sent (to the U.S.A.) for radio carbon dating and we are coordinating the possibility of a joint work in the future deepening the studies on the society and culture she indicated.
Also the director of the Archaeological Museum of the UNMSM maintained that Caral breaks "all the rules" that archaeologists had the with respect to whether complex civilizations could only bloom in a period in which the ceramics exists.
"Unlike other sites of the archaic period the important thing of Caral is that it is monumental, and for that reason nobody thought that it was of the pre-ceramic time period she declared.
165 acres of Caral, explained Shady, have been excavated since 1996 when Peruvian archaeologists initiated the excavations of the 32 pyramidal structures. " To date we have excavated three pyramidal structures of different rank, height and size and are excavating four residential sectors, differentiated by itheir location, by size and by the quality of the constructive material used", she indicated.
Caral, had unlike the agricultural societies of its time a mixed economy that was sustained by agricultural and fishing activities. Their inhabitants consumed great amounts of anchovies and was an immense consumer of cotton.
"In Caral have been found products of the mountain range and of the forest", which demonstrates that there was a "interchange maintained in spite of the difficulties for communication in a territory like the area of the North center crossed by the Mountain range of the Andes", indicated Shady.
"Here we have a very complex society and organization for its time. It has had an advanced precocious development more than any of their neighbors of the American continent.
In Caral, the remains of a boy about a year old were found some years ago, from 2,300 before Christ, who was sacrificed and buried before prior to the construction of a residential site. They also found, in one of two tombs inspected additional remains that are exhibited today in the Archaeological Museum at the University of San Marcos, in the center of Lima.
Shady explained that it is still necessary to establish the hierarchy of these urban centers, and what type of social structure allowed its organization. "There are aspects that are pending of the investigation, which require more in depth study.
"It serves Peruvian pride to recognize this precocious period of development and I hope it serves as a source of income through tourism to improve the economy which is so depressed for the inhabitants of this small valley", she said.