Colossal pyramid structures in the Americas as old as those in Egypt? The sacred city of Caral-Supe, on the central coast of Peru, has an impressive complex of ancient monumental architecture built around 2600 BC, around the same time as the first Egyptian pyramid. Archaeologists consider Caral to be one of the largest and most complex urban centers built by the oldest known civilization in the Western Hemisphere.
The 1,500-acre site, located 125 miles north of Lima and 14 miles from the Pacific coast, features six ancient pyramids, circular plazas below, and giant staircases, all sitting on a windswept desert terrace overlooking the lush green floodplains of the meandering Supe River. Its largest pyramid, also known as the Pirámide Mayor, is nearly 100 feet high, with a base that covers an area covering around four football fields. Radiocarbon dating of organic material throughout the site revealed it to be around 4000-5000 years old, making its architecture as old, if not older, than the Saqqara Step Pyramid, the most ancient pyramid known from ancient Egypt.
This remarkable find places Caral as one of the oldest known cities in the Western Hemisphere. The Peruvian coast has long been considered one of the six recognized cradles of world civilization, and new archaeological finds continue to push back the dates of establishment of the region’s “mother culture”. Caral was the first extensive excavation site of about two dozen in an area along Peru’s central coast known as the Norte Chico region. Archaeologists believe the sites collectively represent the oldest center of civilization in the Americas, which lasted from around 3000 to 1800 BC, without any influence from outside forces. It flourished almost 4,000 years before the start of the mighty Inca Empire.
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His age was initially unclear to scientists
Despite Caral’s importance, decades have passed between when the first scholars stumbled upon the region and when they recognized its importance. German archaeologist Max Uhle explored the Supe Valley, but not Caral itself, as part of a large study of ancient Peruvian cities in the early 1900s. But it was American historian Paul Kosok, who is widely recognized as the first scholar to recognize and visit what is now known as the Caral site in 1948. In his 1965 book, Life, land and water in ancient Peru, he called the site Chupa Cigarro Grande, after a nearby hacienda.
The size and complexity of the site, however, has led many to believe that Caral’s structures were only built more recently, leaving it largely overlooked. It was not until 1994, when Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady of the National University of San Marcos began to study the site, that she realized, failing to find ceramics, that Caral could date before the advent of pot technology.
But Shady needed to justify his claims. While digging the larger pyramid, she and her team found the remains of reed-woven sacks, called shicras, filled with large stones to support the retaining walls of the pyramid. In 1999, she sent the reed samples for radiocarbon dating to senior archaeologists Jonathan Haas at the Field Museum in Chicago and Winifred Creamer at Northern Illinois University.
The results, published in the journal Science in April 2001, were monumental. Caral, along with other ancient sites of Norte Chico in the Supe Valley, were “the site of some of South America’s earliest concentrations of population and corporate architecture,” they wrote. At that time, Caral was considered the oldest known city in the hemisphere; since then other Norte Chico sites, dating back several hundred years earlier, have been unearthed and discoveries continue.
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Massive complex signals advanced society
Shady, who heads the Caral-Supe Special Archaeological Project, continued to probe the depths of the long-lost ancient city, which, compared to some heavily looted archaeological sites, had remained relatively intact due to its late discovery. His findings revealed a site of epic proportions, a site that looms not only with its massive pyramids, but with other intricate architectural elements, including sprawling residential units, multiple plazas, and an impressive circular amphitheater below that would have been large enough to hold hundreds of people. It was there that Shady and his team unearthed the remains of dozens of pelican bone flutes, relics of the importance of music to the ancient inhabitants of Caral.
Another important find came from the Pyramid of the Gallery (or Pirámide de la Galería), which reaches 60 feet high. On the twelfth step of its central staircase, archaeologists unearthed a quipu, an ancient method of recording information used in the Inca era, considered one of the oldest finds in the Americas.
The existence of such a highly structured society implied the presence of strong leadership and thousands of manual workers. “In order to set up this city and its monumental buildings in a coordinated design, advance planning, experts and centralized government were needed,” writes Shady in “The Sacred City of Caral,” a nomination file submitted to the Unesco, which inscribed the archaeological site on the World Heritage List in 2009.
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Why he was abandoned remains a mystery
The existence of such a large and well-organized inner civilization helped to shatter the “maritime hypothesis”, or the long-held theory that complex Andean societies first evolved from the coast, upon which they depended. heavily fishing, and did not progress until later inland. . Dr Shelia Pozorski and her husband Thomas, professors emeritus at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, questioned the maritime hypothesis as early as 1990. available, that the “maritime hypothesis” was more firmly refuted “, has t she declared. Coastal and inland settlements have existed and developed at the same time, Caral being larger and more complex than any coastal villages that may have existed in the region before.
The discovery of cottonseed, fibers and textiles, as well as the remains of clam shells and fish bones at the site, as well as a large fishing net as old as Caral, found along the coast , helped Shady formulate another theory: Caral farmers grew and traded cotton in exchange for fish and shellfish from villagers along the coast. The end result: production surpluses, local specialization of the workforce and the emergence of political authorities in charge of trade. In short, Caral had a nascent model of social and political organization.
While much is known about Caral, there may be more that are unknown, including why it developed in such a complex way and its relationship to other ancient sites in Norte Chico.
The biggest mystery, however, could be why it was abandoned after being inhabited for nearly a thousand years. “There is no concrete evidence that a single event, such as an earthquake or a major flood, ended the occupation of Caral,” said Dr Thomas Pozorski. “It is much more likely that several factors contributed to the decline of the state, including internal strife and discord which are very difficult to prove in archeology.”