Caral: The first civilization in the Americas
Cradled in the Supe Valley and surrounded by the foothills of the Andes resides the remains of what is believed to be the first civilization in the Americas. Caral, Peru, which radiocarbon dating has shown was in existence as early as 2627 BC, is contemporaneous with the pyramids of Egypt, ensuring its place in history as one of the first complex societal cultures.
Located just inland from the Pacific coast in central Peru, Caral is also the first preceramic civilization ever discovered. Ceramic was previously considered essential to the development of a civilization due to its ability to hold water, store food and be used as a cooking utensil. Yet while ceramics were not part of the Caral culture, its people did develop other efficient means to achieve the same ends. This discovery has caused a re-evaluation of ideas about early societies by researchers who have relied on ceramics as evidence of a true civilization.
Dr. Ruth Shady, a Peruvian anthropologist and archeologist, led the research team that provided the first extensive documentation of the Caral site in the late 1990s. During the excavation of the site, her team uncovered six major pyramids up to 60 feet high, with the largest having a base of roughly 500 feet. The monumental architecture of the site also included several sunken circular plazas, ranging in size up to 150 feet in diameter, as well as altars and tombs. Unfired figurines used in religious ceremonies have been unearthed at the site, indicating a possible worship of common god symbols, which recurs in pre-Columbian Andean cultures.
Various other architectural structures, including both residential and nonresidential architecture, have suggested a complex socio-political society for Caral. Evidence of urban settlement, irrigation architecture and textile technology has also been uncovered by the research team. And while the development of agriculture was practiced, archeological remains have indicated a reliance on seafood from the nearby coast.
Caral possessed a formal political, religious and economic structure. A political and religious elite led the society while a middle class focused on agriculture, architecture and economic matters. The lower class is believed to have engaged in the manual labor needed for the efficient growth and development of the culture. This societal structure, along with the monumental architecture and irrigation, is evidence of a strong, centralized leadership.
The physical layout of Caral, which covers more than 150 acres, reflected this organizational structure. Architectural elements denoting political and religious authority, including the dramatic pyramids, were built on top of a very large natural terrace in Upper Caral. At the foot of the terrace was Lower Caral, which was primarily developed with smaller public buildings and residential units.
Much of the evidence that has been uncovered shows Caral’s influence extended beyond the adjacent Supe Valley and its roughly 17 contemporary smaller settlements. This influence ranged 400 kilometers to the north and south and 300 kilometers east, extending over the Andes and into the adjacent jungle.
The civilization in Caral appears to have profoundly influenced much of what is considered as Peru today. The geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, which are generally ascribed religious significance, have antecedents in Caral. Various architectural elements, icons and forms of communication found in Caral have been uncovered in later societies in Peru, including the Inca Empire. Even the Quechua language, later used by the Incans and still widely spoken in the Andes, has been traced back to Caral.
Much remains to be discovered about this 5,000-year-old civilization. But what is clear is that the evidence unearthed so far at the Caral site has shed new light on the beliefs about the social, economic and cultural development of civilization in the Americas.