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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2


Caral and the Earliest Peruvian Civilization: Expanded Site Data


          The Supe Valley (fig.1), 200 miles north of Lima on the Peruvian Pacific coast, was first surveyed a century ago by the German archaeologist Max Uhle (1925). After being only sporadically studied for decades, in recent years this region has yielded the most extensive known evidence of an early complex society in the Americas. This is apparently a primary or pristine civilization, which arose in near-coastal Peruvian river valleys during the Late Archaic period (ca. 3000-1800 BC). It flourished before the advent of ceramics, but with a subsistence based on irrigation agriculture and aquatic food resources, and central ceremonial areas including large platform mounds.

          The Supe Valley contains a number of such Preceramic mound sites. The most intensively studied site has been Caral (fig.2), located 23 km inland, investigated between 1994 and 2005 by the Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solis of the University of San Marcos. Caral contains six large tiered mounds and circular platforms, remains of ceremonial and dwelling areas, and evidence of irrigation works and agriculture as early as the third millennium BC (Shady 2001).

          At the mouth of the Supe River on the coast, the Preceramic site of Aspero (first identified by Uhle in 1905) hasalso, since the 1970s, revealed early evidence of agriculture dating back to 3000 BC (Feldman 1980). Within a site area of 13 hectares (ha), Aspero has at least seventeen artificial mounds up to 4 m high. Other large Preceramic sites in Peru, including Huaca Prieta and Los Gavillanes on the coast and La Galgada in the uplands, all had early plant domestication and platform mounds. The early dates for Aspero have led Moseley (2001) and others (Feldman 1980; Sandweiss and Moseley 2001) to propose a coastal origin for the earliest Peruvian civilization, due to the ready abundance of marine food resources.

[Fig.1: Supe Valley, and northern survey region (after Shady Solis et al 2001 and Haas et al 2004)].

          An alternative viewpoint put forward by Ruth Shady Solis and other researchers sees the origins of social complexity arising from inland agriculture at sites like Caral (Shady Solis and Leyva 2003). Compared to Aspero, the inland site of Caral is larger (65 ha) and has more platform mounds numbering at least twenty-five, of which six are 10 to 18 m high (labeled B,C,G,H, and I in fig.9). It is also surrounded by other sites within the Supe Valley, and neighboring valleys that contain artificial mounds larger than those at Aspero. In 2001, eighteen C-14 samples from Caral dating to 4090 to 3640 BP (calibrated to 2627-1977 BC) were published by Shady Solis and the North American archaeologists Jonathan Haas of the Chicago Field Museum, and Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University (Shady, Haas, and Creamer 2001).

          More recently, a December 2004 article by Haas, Creamer, and Alvaro Ruiz reported an additional ninety-five radiocarbon dates from thirteen Late Archaic sites along the neighboring Pativilca and Fortaleza river valleys (Haas, Creamer, and Ruiz 2004). A total of twenty sites with large platform mounds found in this survey vary from 10-100 ha in area, and have stratified housefloors, sunken circular plazas, and irrigation works. Approximately seventy radiocarbon results from eleven of the sites (six in the Fortaleza Valley and five in the Pativilca) support a date range of about 3000 to 1800 BC for these Preceramic sites with monumental architecture. Like Caral, they had a mixed economy of irrigation-based agriculture and marine foods from the nearby coast. Trade between the coast and the interior mound sites has been seen by Shady Solis and Leyva (2003), and Haas, Creamer, and Ruiz (2004) as a mechanism for the evolution of complex society involving specialization of labor. These findings, plus some early dates of about 3000 BC for a few of the inland sites with monumental platforms, tend to support views asserting that the origins of complex society in Peru are linked with agricultural sites and plant domestication.

[Fig.2: The center of Caral (after Shady et al 2001)].

          The recently published information provides substantial new time depth and geographical range to the early Peruvian civilization first defined at Caral by Shady Solis. The multitude of sites in the Supe and adjacent river valleys, most of which show extraordinary preservation of organic materials, including food remains and textiles, should continue to provoke controversy and to revolutionize theories about the beginnings of complex human societies.

[Feldman R. 1980. Aspero, Peru. PhD dissertation, Harvard Univ.; Haas J., W. Creamer, and A. Ruiz, 2004. "Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico region in Peru," Nature 432:1021-1023; Haas J. and W. Creamer, 2001. "Response to Sandweiss and Moseley." Science 294:1652; Moseley M. 2001. The Incas and their Ancestors. London, Thames and Hudson; Sandweiss, D. and M. Moseley. 2001. "Amplifying Importance of New Research in Peru." Science 294:1651-53; Shady R. et al 2001. "Dating Caral, a Preceramic Site in the Supe Valley on the Central Coast of Peru." Science 292:723-726; Shady R. and C. Leyva (eds). 2003. La Ciudad Sagrada de Caral-Supe. Inst.Nat. de Cultura, Lima]


This article appears on page 9 in the Recent Finds in Archaeology of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.


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