The archaeological site of Caral in the Supe River Valley is located about 180 kilometers north of Lima. It developed about 5000 years ago and is considered the oldest city in the Americas. Unlike the cultures of the Middle East and Asia which carried out exchange of knowledge and experience, Caral would have developed in almost complete isolation. Among the greatest expressions of the Caral culture are the construction of giant pyramid-shaped structures and a complex and organized society based on religion, agriculture, commerce and musical activities.
The City of the Pyramids
Caral was discovered in 1996 by Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady. Shady knew of the existence of some sandy hills near the Supe River bank and with a grant from the National Geographic
and the help of two archaeologists and three students of archaeology from the University of San Marcos
in Lima, began the first excavations in 1994.
Subsequent work with government support, including the use of heavy machinery of the Peruvian Army to clear the rubble from the surface of the first hill, led to the discovery of an astonishing stone building nearly the size of four football fields and about 5 stories high. This finding gave credibility to the research and gathered new resources which allowed continuing the work. In total six gigantic pyramids were discovered. Additional 26 architectural structures of various sizes and functions have also been described including several medium and small buildings, temples, residential areas, public plazas, an amphitheater, stores, shrines and streets. It has also been established the existence of places near the city, on the south bank of the river, equipped with canals and irrigation systems presumed having been used for agriculture.
The city of Caral occupies about 65 hectares and it is estimated that it was the home of several thousand people. Current rainfall and river flow conditions are scarce which suggests that there have been significant changes since antiquity. The architectural complex is relatively close to the coast, about 20 kilometers. The sea would have been an excellent source of fish, algae and mollusks to feed the population and to trade with other nearby settlements of the interior and the Andes Mountains. Most likely the Supe River was also rich in fish and crustaceans for consumption by the population.
In 1997 Ruth Shady published her work
"The Sacred City of Caral-Supe at the dawn of civilization in Peru
" (in Spanish) where she describes and supports the pre-ceramic origin of ancient Caral. The interest derived from her work allowed her to get in touch with researchers at the University of Chicago who worked with her to establish the age of organic objects found in the ruins using the radiocarbon dating technique
. Through radiocarbon analysis it was confirmed that the city would have developed starting from around 2700 BC. Some other structures at sites near Caral gave a date of about 3000 years BC.
Therefore, the culture that developed in Caral had an average age of 5000 years
. The discovery showed that the Peruvian civilization that built the great pyramids of Caral began about 1500 years before the Mesoamerican (Maya) civilization and would have been contemporaneous with the cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India.
Organization and way of life at Caral
According to Shady, Caral was a theocratic city-state which can be considered as the cradle of Andean civilization and one of the oldest foundations of human civilization in the world. Its development took about 600 years and required a high degree of technology and social organization. The Caral pyramids were used by the rulers as centers of religious, political or economic power. Apart from the pyramids, other structures such as plazas, courtyards and shrines represented means of cohesion and religious influence which allowed control of the population and facilitated the production and exchange of goods.
The people of Caral were peaceful, gentle people more interested in arts and music than in conflicts and battles. No weapons, elements of war or defense, or human remains have been found in the ruins. Ruth Shady assumes that the people of Caral were a society devoted mainly to production, trade and the enjoyment of life. In one of the pyramids the researchers found 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones and 37 cornets of deer and llama bones. They also found some evidence suggesting the use of drugs and possibly of aphrodisiac substances. Because of this, it has been assumed that part of the development of Caral was based on the production and distribution of coca leaves.
Connected to the development and economic activity of Caral, and possibly linked to the great sacred city, there were at least other 18 human settlements along the Supe River Valley, which in total could have been inhabited by some 20,000 people. This should have made possible a significant level of trade and commerce with other human populations possibly as far as the Amazon region.
The Sacred City of Caral-Supe was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
in 2009. In its synthesis UNESCO states:
“The Sacred City of Caral-Supe reflects the rise of civilisation in the Americas. As a fully developed socio-political state, it is remarkable for its complexity and its impact on developing settlements throughout the Supe Valley and beyond...Caral is the most highly-developed and complex example of settlement within the civilisation’s formative period.”
Visiting Caral is not an easy undertaking. The trip from Lima, the Peruvian capital, takes about three and half hours each way, and part of the road is just a stone-lined gravel path through the desert. Peruvian government agencies (Ministry of Culture
, in Spanish) are developing programs to promote domestic and international visits to this important archaeological site. This includes the training of local residents of the Supe Valley capable of serving as tour guides providing information on the significance of the archaeological investigations.