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
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
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
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
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
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."