The Washington Post
Friday, April 27, 2001; Page A03

Peru May Harbor Americas' First City

Researchers Gather Evidence of Coastal Civilization From 3rd Millennium B.C.

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer

Archaeologists working in the windblown coastal desert of Peru have uncovered the ruins of a city as old as ancient Egypt and more than 1,000 years older than any
previously reported urban center in the Americas.

The city is clustered around six large pyramids near the town of Caral, about 120 miles north of Lima. Its discovery strengthens the view that a robust coastal
civilization arose in Peru more than 4,000 years ago independently of, and much earlier than, the great cultures of South America's Andes mountains and the lowlands
of Mexico and Central America.

Radiocarbon analysis of the remains of reed bags from the site date Caral to between 2627 B.C. and 2000 B.C., roughly contemporary with Egypt's Great Pyramids
and as much as 1,400 years older than Mexico's Olmec, generally regarded as the first complex urban culture in the Americas.

The excavation also underscores the archaeological potential of more than a dozen unexplored sites buried for millennia beneath a carpet of sand in Peru's Supe
Valley, a remote desert basin fed by a river from the distant mountains.

"Besides Caral, there also appear to be four other sites you can see from one to another," said Northern Illinois University's Winifred Creamer, a member of the
archaeological team that reported its findings today in the journal Science. "If they are contemporaneous, we are looking at thousands of people in the valley at a very
early date."

A research team, led by Ruth Shady Solis of Lima's University of San Marcos, examined a 160-acre area containing six large pyramids grouped around a central
plaza, plus several smaller pyramids with houses perched on top, a large number of more modest adobe houses and the remains of less permanent shelters made of
wattle -- reeds daubed and stiffened with mud.

Unlike other pyramid sites in the Americas, where ceremonial structures are isolated from residences, Creamer said Caral appeared to be a fully integrated
community, with the pyramid area "very much the center of town."

What sets Caral apart from other sites is its unusual mix of technological simplicity and organizational sophistication. The site is "pre-ceramic," with no pottery, and
Creamer said the team had found no evidence of elaborate burials or fancy ornaments. The few artifacts recovered are made of bone or wood, she said, and tools
are crudely fashioned digging and grinding stones.

Also absent is any evidence that Caral's residents cultivated a staple crop like corn or potatoes -- basic foods of the Andes whose presence can be a tip-off that a
hunting and gathering community is developing a more complex socioeconomic organization.

Instead, the Caral team found traces of guava, squash, beans, a podded tree fruit known today as pacay, and a local stone fruit called lucuma. Gourds were used to
hold water, and woven meshes of reeds served as carry-alls.

Unlike the celebrated Egyptian pyramids, Caral's monuments were relatively simple structures -- rectangular retaining walls of fitted stones, fronted with mud plaster
and filled with reed bags full of rocks carried from the Supe River.

Creamer said all the pyramids were terraced, and had a stone staircase running up one of the faces, much like Mayan pyramids, "except much bigger." She noted that
Caral's largest pyramid is not "remarkably high," at 60 feet, but the base -- 500 feet long and 450 feet wide -- is "huge" by American standards.

Creamer explained that monumental architecture by its very nature indicates the presence of a large population and a hierarchical division of labor -- many people
carry stones, while others supervise.

Furthermore, the team found evidence that the people of Caral cultivated cotton and irrigated it with a canal dug from the Supe River. The proliferation of fish bones
-- anchovies and sardines, for the most part -- suggests a barter economy with fishermen from the Pacific coast 14 miles away.

"This had to be a complex system, because we think the inland people were growing cotton, making it into string and trading it to the people of the coast" in exchange
for fish, Creamer said. "They sound like Neolithic people, except they are Neolithic textile technologists."

The discoveries at Caral added a new dimension to a theory advanced 30 years ago by archaeologist Michael Moseley that Peru's coastal civilization was
sea-focused and developed independently of the later mountain cultures.

"The magnitude of Caral and the inland location is a surprise," said Moseley, now at the University of Florida. "What's neat is that the focus on cotton rather than
staples fits with the maritime scenario. The sea can feed you, but can't clothe you."

Until the Caral discoveries, the best known site in the region was a third millennium B.C. coastal fishing village excavated by Moseley. He described a fishing
economy based on fine-mesh nets and small reed boats similar to a type known today as caballitos -- "little horses."

The cold waters of the Humboldt Current are some of the richest fisheries in the world, teeming with anchovies and sardines in shallow waters, home of giant tuna
further offshore.

Moseley suggested that the coastal residents traded fish to Caral for cotton to make fishing nets and lines, and gourds to use as floats, an integrated commerce that
provides further evidence of a complex society.

"What you don't have is the fancy artifacts and all the other bells and whistles," Moseley said, but this is not necessarily surprising. "People are farming or fishing. You
only get a focus on personal wealth with the onset of staple agriculture."

Staples can be stored or hoarded, and given a value, he said, but Caral's world was a simpler one where a relatively few people could thrive: "If they ate nothing but
anchovies, and harvested the stock at 40 percent, the sea could have supported 6 million people."

                                               © 2001