By Laurent Belsie | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
SUPE VALLEY, PERU - On a desert outcropping known simply as NN2, archaeologist
Ruth Shady Solís is kneeling over the remains of a
clay wall, sweeping away dust with a small whisk broom. Then she stands up, baffled.
"Levels 1 through 3 are straightforward," she says, pointing to three separate
tiers of dirt flooring at this site, some 120 miles north of Lima,
Peru. But the next tier proves complicated because it's built of two different kinds of fill, one light gray, the other a reddish gray-brown
studded with straw.
Were both sections built at the same time? If so, why the change in material?
Remodeling was complicated, it seems, even 4,000 years
The two-tone floor remains one of the small puzzles of the much bigger
mystery known as Caral. Confirmed last year as the oldest city in
the Americas, Caral has shattered the myth that civilization got a late start in the New World. Nearly 5,000 years ago, around the time that
Sumerians developed writing and before Egyptians built the Great Pyramid at Giza, people here in the Supe River Valley began building a
They knew nothing about writing and had no knowledge of ceramics. But they
planned and built huge public works, evolved a specialized
and stratified society, and developed a sophisticated and diversified economy. The findings at Caral have added another millennium to the
age of civilization in the Americas.
But here in Peru, their discovery evokes mixed emotions from the archaeologists
who work the site and the rural people who live around it.
There's pride, certainly, but also puzzlement.
"The campesinos always ask: Why did our ancestors have the capacity to
build such an important city, and we live so poorly and don't
have the ability to do similar things?" says Dr. Shady, the Peruvian archaeologist who recognized the importance of Caral five years ago.
The answer "is very difficult for me."
It involves the rise and fall of civilizations.
A reversal of fortune
If ever there were a spot commemorating the shifting fortunes of history,
Caral is it. Set in a mountainous desert not unlike southern
Nevada, bordered by a long, narrow stretch of green fields fed by the Supe River, Caral has spent millennia covered by dust and debris.
Early in the 1900s, archaeologists realized that its six large dunes were too regularly shaped to be natural. But it took decades before
excavation began, and until recently, archaeologists believed the site was relatively modern. In 1996, when Shady began working at Caral,
she quickly guessed that it dated from the preceramic era but still had very complex architecture. Her excavations began to prove her
For example, two partially excavated pyramids reveal adjacent, circular
sunken plazas - a combination of square and round that would
come to characterize later structures throughout Peru. The presence of plazas suggests two things. First, that the early society had evolved
a need for large ceremonial gathering places. (Shady's team also unearthed 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones, suggesting a
knowledge of music and, perhaps, public ceremonies.) Second, the labor required to build such large public works needed some kind of
hierarchy to plan the development and organize the workers.
The pyramid builders had unique building methods. They would tie up rocks
in fiber bags, called "shicras," and then transport them to the
construction site and lay them, bag and all, as fill to build up the pyramid. Shady's team has uncovered enough of these shicras to notice
differences in their quality: some knotted expertly, others less so. This suggested Caral had developed a division of labor with people
specializing in different trades.
A civilization arises because it controls something important. Mesopotamia
prospered once it irrigated the desert and produced an
abundance of food. Caral diverted water from the Supe River to irrigate fields, growing staples such as squash and beans. But its secret
weapon may have been cotton. By growing cotton, used to make fishing nets, the people of Caral could trade for fish with the communities
on the Pacific coast 12 miles away. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of fish bones.
The community also traded with communities in the jungle farther inland
and, apparently, with people from the mountains. Shady has found
the remains of jungle plants at Caral as well as aspects of mountain architecture in the buildings of Caral. The Supe Valley hosts other
communities, some of them much older and some within view of the city itself, but none of them approaches the scale and sophistication of
"Caral is a fabulous complex of a site," says Michael Moseley, an anthropology
professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Its
sheer size and the scale of its pyramids suggest to some experts that its inhabitants were developing an economy different from maritime
communities on the coast, he says, although the point remains controversial.
The road ahead
Caral's one-time splendor makes its current condition all the more troubling.
Shady and her archaeologists have barely scratched the
surface of this vast area. The central zone itself stretches out over 160 acres. Her university in Lima, La Universidad Nacional Mayor de San
Marcos, supports her and her team of archaeologists. The Peruvian government has provided a new van and 25 soldiers during the work
week to help with the digging. But it's not enough, Shady says.
The soldiers have no training in excavation. Because of its own financial
woes, her university has cut her team of on-site archaeologists
from six down to three. To add insult to injury, the site itself remains unprotected and unguarded. So private cars and even tour buses show
up unexpectedly throughout the day. To keep errant tourists from trampling the site, archaeologists leave their own work and give guided
"It's very difficult because in Peru, there is no political culture that
favors archaeological investigation," Shady says. "Archaeologists find
To raise money, Shady agreed to work with Jonathan Haas, curator of anthropology
at the Field Museum in Chicago, and his wife, Winifred
Creamer, anthropologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The pair helped Shady get several Caral samples radiocarbon-dated in the
United States, which proved the site dates back to at least 2600 BC, as Shady suspected. (The city probably is older, she contends,
because the dated samples didn't come from the oldest parts of the excavations.) The three then coauthored an article on Caral.
But relations cooled after the article appeared last April in Science magazine.
The American press quoted Drs. Haas and Creamer
extensively, making it appear they were leading the team even though their work at the site was limited to collecting the samples for dating.
And US funds never materialized.
Haas did propose $50,000 in support if Shady would agree to let him and his wife pursue their research in the area. She refused.
"I think it's an ... unequal relationship," she says. "There are many benefits
for the professionals abroad." Little, if any, trickles down to local
archaeologists. Haas points out that the US government will only fund archaeological research abroad if an American plays a lead role.
"There are always problems with this kind of arrangement," says Betty Meggers,
a research associate and anthropologist at the
Smithsonian Institution who has worked for years with Shady and other Latin American archaeologists. "North Americans are always going
to be dominant."
But "it's at a crossroads now," she adds. "As you're getting more well-trained
people down there, they're saying: 'We've had enough of this.'
Instead of looking for funds abroad, Shady is trying to build local support
from the ground up. She has convinced a nearby village to make
T-shirts and caps with Caral logos, which her museum will sell.
After a full day of digging on one recent weekend trek to Caral, she traveled
to a nearby village for an hour-long meeting. By the glow of
kerosene lamps (the village still has no electricity), she tried to convince local leaders to open a small inn and restaurant to accommodate
tourists and visiting archaeologists. Tourism, she hopes, will convince the government that her site is important enough to receive more
support. Village leaders, however, remain skeptical.
"There's a problem of self-identification in the country," Shady answers
when locals ask her why Peru is so backward today. When Caral
flourished, "the society was organized with a population that worked to do things collectively for the collective good. But with the rupture
from the arrival of the Spaniards [3,500 years later], there was no more interest in the country except as a source of minerals to be exported
Even after the colonizers were thrown out, she says, "our leaders, generally
because of problems of identity and self-esteem, believed that
everything from abroad was good. Never again did they try to understand the country from its geography, from its history, from its social