Ancient Peru Sites of the Norte Chico and Oldest City of the Americas

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Remains of Caral

Despite now being regarded as one of the most important archeological sites in the Americas, Caral was largely overlooked until fairly recently. To a large extent, this most ancient of Peruvian sites has yet to fix itself into the popular consciousness in spite of its huge importance. However, continued archeological developments are slowly highlighting what is both a unique and fascinating settlement.

The Pyramids of Caral, Peru – The Most Ancient Settlement of the Americas

Located approximately 115 miles north of Lima, Peru, Caral sits in the Supe River Valley, 14 miles inland from the coast. Today’s excavated urban settlement reveals a city complex spread out over 65 hectares with over 30 monumental structures. The main “pyramid” (Pirámide Mayor) stands at over 60ft tall, while other stone platforms, temples, plazas and an amphitheater have been uncovered within the urban center.

As with Hiram Bingham’s so called “discovery” of Machu Picchu, the Caral site was more a series of rediscoveries. Archeological digs are recorded from as far back as 1905, but the absence of gold and ceramic artifacts often failed to pique prolonged interest.

Further digs in the 1940s failed to find many defining artifacts (those commonly associated with Andean sites) which again served to keep Caral from the attention of the world at large. However, it was this very lack of ceramics that soon began to have various archeologists theorizing that Caral was indeed a site of remarkable age. Still, it was not until 2001 that the settlement truly hit the headlines.

Carbon Dating Reveals Caral, Peru, to be the Oldest City in the Americas

In 1996, archeologist Ruth Shady Solis began a new excavation of the Caral site. In 2000, Shady and her team sent away organic remains (shicras – grass weaved bags used to carry rocks for construction purposes) to be Carbon 14 dated. The results proved that the urban settlement dated as far back as 2627 B.C.

Not only did this make the Caral-Supe (Norte Chico) culture the oldest state-building civilization in Peru, it also placed Caral as the oldest city in the Americas. Remarkably, this also made Caral as old as the pyramids of Egypt, a fact that soon had the global media focused upon the settlement.

Caral, Peru – Ancient Mother City of the Americas?

A modern archeological preoccupation is the notion of “mother cities” – the first instances where humans have come together in urban settlements. Caral is seen as having the potential to be such a “mother city”. Being so much older than any other city-like settlement in the Americas, the site is an important link in this theoretical chain. Caral becomes what historian William Webster calls “one of the first beds of civilisation”.

Indeed, the influence of the Caral settlement can be seen in much later Andean civilizations. Elements of Caral’s urban design are reflected in later Chavin, Moche, Wari, Chimu and even Inca settlements. Social and belief systems, irrigation techniques and cotton cultivation are also mirrored in later cultures. Site archeologists have also found a knotted textile artifact which some believe to be an early quipu, a record-keeping system used throughout the Inca Empire (whether this artifact is indeed an early quipu is subject to much debate).

Ancient Peru Sites – War as the Mother of Invention?

Yet another fascinating aspect of Caral is the apparently peaceful nature of the settlement. Historian John Reader, in his work Cities, highlights the widely accepted notion that humans first came together for defensive reasons as a result of violence and warfare. “South America” he states, “was frequently cited as a prime example of war as a driving force in the development of cities and civilisation. Evidence of warfare was especially plentiful in the Maya, Inca and Aztec sites, for instance; but they were not very old”.

Caral, as Reader later notes, would seem to go against this notion, a distinct counter-example to the concept of human conglomerations coming about due to war alone. The settlement is devoid of all signs of warfare; the city has no walls, no defensive battlements, no weapons or mutilated bodies have been found and there are no artistic depictions of battle.

Until any evidence is found to the contrary, it would appear that Caral and the Caral-Supe (Norte Chico) people were part of a peaceful and gentle society. Commerce, development and pleasure seem to have been the keywords for this fascinating civilization and their ancient city-state.

Sources:

  1. John Reader – Cities, Grove Press, 2004, ISBN 0802142737
  2. William Webster – The Universal Solution, Trafford Publishing, 2009, ISBN 9781426916274
  3. Ruth Shady Solis – “Caral, Peru: The Oldest Citadel in the Americas”, www.livinginperu.com