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Caral: the oldest town in the New World

In 2001, the oldest town in South America was officially announced. Dating to 2600 BC, it pushed back the date for the “first town” with one millennium. What is even more intriguing, is that the town of Caral has pyramids, contemporary with the Egyptian Pyramid Era.

Philip Coppens


Sometime before 3200 BC, if not 3500 BC, something happened in the Norte Chico in Peru, an agronomical no-go area, where hardly anything grows. This, however, is the site where the oldest traces of a “genuine civilisation” – pyramids included – were found in America.
Here, at least 25 large ceremonial/residential sites have so far been found, of which Caral has become the most famous. The North Chico, roughly 100 km north of the Peruvian capital Lima, consists of four narrow river valleys, from south to north, the Huaura, Supe, Pativilca, and Fortaleza. The ancient pyramids of Caral predate the Inca civilisation by 4000 years, but were flourishing a century before the pyramids of Gizeh. No surprise therefore that they have been identified as the most important archaeological discovery since the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911.

The first full-scale archaeological investigation of the region took place in 1941 in Aspero, when Gordon R. Willey and John M. Corbert of Harvard investigated a salt marsh at the mouth of the Supe. They found a big trash heap and a multiroomed building with no pottery and a few maize cobs under the pounded clay floor. They wondered how maize could have been cultivated in a salt marsh and why these people could have agriculture, yet no pottery. Willey and Corbett also found six mounds, some of them nearly five metres tall. They were catalogued as "natural eminences of sand". Thirty years later, Willey, in the company of Michael E. Moseley, revisited the site and realised that these "natural eminences" were in fact "temple-type platform mounds". He also realised there might have been as many as seventeen such mounds, all of which Willey had missed on his first exploration of the site. "It is an excellent, if embarrassing, example of not being able to find what you are not looking for", he commented later. As to its age: carbondating revealed that Aspero could go back to 3000 BC, whereby samples from a nearby site even revealed a date of 4900 BC. Those objective findings were nevertheless seen as impossible - far too old with "what was known" and hence not accepted.

Caral is located 14 miles inland from Aspero. Even though Caral was discovered in 1905, it was quickly forgotten as the site rendered no gold or even ceramics. It required the arrival of Ruth Shady Solis in Caral in 1994 before a genuine paradigm shift would occur. She is a member of the Archaeological Museum of the National University of San Marcos in Lima. Since 1996, she has co-operated with Jonathan Haas, of the American Field Museum. Together, they have found a 150-acre array of earthworks, which includes six large platform mounds, one twenty metres high and more than one hundred on a side. But Shady Solis did not make the same mistake Willey had made: she felt that the “pyramids” were just that: they were not natural hills, as some of her predecessor had catalogued the structures of Caral. Her subsequent research led to the announcement, in the magazine Science on April 27, 2001, of the carbon dating of the site, which revealed that Caral had been founded before 2600 BC. The "impossible" carbondating results of Aspero now seemed more likely... and Caral had become the oldest city in the "New" World, older than the Gizeh pyramids.

What is Caral like? The site is in fact so old that it predates the ceramic period, the reason why no pottery was found. Its importance resides in its domestication of plants, especially cotton, but also beans, squashes and guava.
As mentioned, the heart of the site covers 150 acres and contains six stone platform mounds – pyramids. The largest mound measures 154 by 138 metres, though it rises only to a height of twenty metres; two sunken plazas are at the base of the mound and a large plaza connects all the mounds. The largest pyramid of Peru was terraced with a staircase leading up to an atrium-like platform, culminating in a flattened top housing enclosed rooms and a ceremonial fire pit. All pyramids were built in one or two phases, which means that there was a definitive plan in erecting these monuments. The design of the central plaza would also later be incorporated in all similar structures across the Andes in the millennia to come – thus showing that Caral was a true cradle of civilisation. Around the pyramids were many residential structures. One house revealed the remains of a body that was buried in the wall and appears to have been a natural death, rather than evidence of human sacrifice. Amongst the artefacts discovered are 32 flutes made from pelican and animal bones, engraved with the figures of birds and monkeys. It shows that though situated along the Pacific coast, its inhabitants were aware of the animals of the Amazon.

How did the culture begin? It is suggested that several small villages merged in 2700 BC, quite possibly based on the success of early agricultural cultivation and fishing techniques. The invention of cotton fishing nets, the cotton grown in the Supe valley, must have greatly facilitated the fishing industry. It is believed that this excess of food might have resulted in trade with the religious centres. But apart from an economic model of exchange, the new social model also meant that a labour force existed that had in essence little to do. This labour force could thus be used for “religious purposes”. Caral might have been the natural result of this process – just like the pyramids of Egypt seem to have been the result of an available workforce.
The discovery of Caral has therefore reintroduced a powerful enigma: at the same time, on two different continents, agricultural advancements created a new style of life. The available workforce that agriculture had created was reemployed in the construction of pyramids. This “template” is visible in Peru, Sumer and Egypt, all in the 3rd millennium BC. Coincidence, or evidence of design? Alternative researchers will certainly soon reopen this debate, but archaeologists steer well clear of it.

Caral is indeed hard to accept. It is very old. Still, its dating of 2627 BC is beyond dispute, based as it is on carbondating reed and woven carrying bags that were found in situ. These bags were used to carry the stones that were used for the construction of the pyramids. The material is an excellent candidate for dating, thus allowing for a high precision.
The town itself had a population of approximately 3000 people. But there are 17 other sites in the area, allowing for a possible total population of 20,000 people for the Supe valley. Indeed, the Caral archaeological team broke up to investigate some of the other sites, such as along the Pativilca River, the next river to the north, and the Fortaleza, just north of the Pativilca. All of these sites share similarities with Caral. They have small platforms or stone circles and all were major urban centres on par with Caral – though some of them were even older than Caral. Haas believes that Caral was nevertheless the focus of this civilisation, itself part of an even vaster complex, trading with the coastal communities and the regions further inland – as far as the Amazon, if the depiction of monkeys is any indication.

Modern irrigation in the Supe valley, which is likely to be very similar to the irrigation methods used in the 3rd millennium BC

In July 2006, Caral was opened for tourism, even though it had already received 7,338 visitors in 2003, 15,265 visitors in 2004 and 21,068 visitors in 2005. With the support of PromPeru, and its location being just two hours north of Lima along the easily accessible Pan-American Highway, this number is expected to rise in the coming years. It will continue to undergo a series of restorations that will provide an added value to the existing and future tourist circuits in the region.
But some of the other sites of Norte Chico are still the almost exclusive bailiwick of archaeologists. One site, Huaricanga, saw a first paper published in December 2004. The team of Haas, Winnifred Creamer and Alvaro Ruiz found evidence of people living inland from the coast as early as 9210 BC, with the oldest date associated with a city being 3500 BC. Other urban sites in the region are now dated as being older than Caral: Caballete at 3100 BC, Porvenir and Upaca at 2700 BC. Charles Mann writes how "individually, none of the twenty-five Norte Chico cities rivaled Sumer's cities in size, but the totality was bigger than Sumer."

Haas describes the civilisation of Norte Chico as the second experiment Mankind did with government: surrendering personal freedom and liberty to a centralised authority, which then apparently decided to create a ritual centre – a city, asking those who had surrendered their freedom to work hard – if not very hard – for this common or greater good. As to why this central government was created, speculation remains. The cities were not sited strategically, nor did they have defensive walls; there was no evidence of warfare. It seems that co-operation existed, because the population realised that co-operation would benefit the individual and the community as a whole. Though Haas and his colleagues put forward several "logical" reasons, Caral is primarily a religious cult centre. And no-one seems to dare to suggest the perhaps obvious reason: that these people built Caral, because of their belief and adoration of one or more deities.
That the workforce involved were not slaves or oppressed is supported by the archaeological evidence. Haas and Creamer believe that the city rulers encouraged the workforce during construction by staging celebratory roasts of fish and achira root. Afterward, the remains of these feasts were worked into the fabric of the mound. Alcohol is suspected of having been consumed, and music seems to have been played: at Caral, Shady's discovery of 32 flutes made of pelican wingbones tucked into a recess in the main temple provides the evidence for that conclusion.
The creation of a religous complex implies the existence of a pantheon. Little evidence has been uncovered of what these gods may have been, other than a drawing etched into the face of a gourd, dated to 2280-2180 BC. It depicts a sharp-toothed, hat-wearing figure who holds a long stick or rod in each hand. The image looks like an early version of the Staff God, a fanged, staff-wielding deity who is one of the main characters in the Andean pantheon, the deity that is figured prominently on the Gateway of the Sun in Tiahuanaco, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

For an unknown reason, Caral was abandoned rapidly after a period of 500 years (ca. 2100 BC). The preferred theory as to why the people migrated is that the region was hit by a drought, forcing the inhabitants to go elsewhere in search of fertile plains. The fact that the Staff God is found two millennia later elsewhere in Southern America shows that these people did not disappear; they merely moved elsewhere, and seem to have built other religious centres on their travels.
The harsh living conditions have since not disappeared. According to the World Monuments Fund (WMF), Caral is one of the 100 important sites under extreme danger. Shady argues that if the existing pyramids are not reinforced, they will disintegrate further and money from tourism, as well as private donations, will help preserve the site. Conservation will go hand in hand with exploration. And though Caral continues to steal the limelight, other nearby sites, such as Aspero, are older. Indeed, Aspero might one day lay claim to the title of the world's oldest city – the place where human civilisation began. Perhaps we might all once realise the irony of having labelled this continent the "New World".
Solis came to Caral looking for the fabled missing link of archaeology, a “mother city”. Today, she is still trying to convince people that Caral was indeed the oldest urban civilisation in the world. "The discovery of Caral challenged the accepted beliefs. Some historians were not ready to believe that an urban civilisation existed in Peru even before the pyramids were built in Egypt," she says. "This place is somewhere between the seat of the gods and the home of man."

Still, the fame of Caral as the oldest pyramid complex might be shortlived. Archaeologists have found a 5,500-year-old ceremonial plaza at Sechin Bajo, in Casma, 229 miles north of Lima, the capital. The discovery occurred by a team of the Latin American Institute at the Freie University in Berlin, under the auspices of Prof. Dr. Peter Fuchs. It contained a platform pyramid that was originally possibly up to 100 metres tall. Carbon dating shows it is one of the oldest structures ever found in the Americas. Nearly 2,000 years later, another structure measuring 180 by 120 metres was added onto it. The discovery at Sechin Bajo means this pyramid complex is now even older than Caral.

This article first appeared in Frontier Magazine 8.3 (May 2002) and has been adapted three times since its first publication.