The Americas' Oldest Pyramids, Cities
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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635;

April 26, 2001

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Archaeologists say Peru was home
to the Americas' oldest pyramids, cities

DEKALB, Ill.-The ancient pyramids of Egypt hold nothing over their little known counterparts in Peru-at least in terms of age.

A husband-and-wife archaeology team from the Field Museum in Chicago and Northern Illinois University say radiocarbon dating has determined six immense pyramids about 12 miles inland from the Peruvian coast are the oldest known man-made monuments in the Americas.

Located on a sand-dune terrace overlooking a river valley near the tiny village of Caral, Peru, about 120 miles north of Lima, the truncated pyramids were built as early as 2627 B.C.-at about the same time as the great Egyptian pyramids. The ancient Peruvians also developed at Caral what may have been one of the Americas' first cities, with hundreds of upper-, middle- and lower-status dwellings and irrigated agriculture.

"This may actually be the birthplace of civilization in the Americas," said researcher Winifred Creamer, Ph.D., an archaeologist and professor at Northern Illinois University. "Caral is an absolute treasure trove for archaeologists. Now that we know how old it is, this site certainly will redefine how we view the development of civilization in the New World."

Dr. Creamer and her husband Jonathan Haas, Ph.D., MacArthur curator of the Americas at the Field Museum, join Ruth Shady, Ph.D., of San Marcos University in Lima in reporting their findings in the April 27 issue of the prestigious journal, Science.

The researchers are the first to establish the early dates for Caral. Nestled in the Andes' Supe Valley about 12 miles from the Pacific Coast of Peru, Caral is one of 18 large archaeological sites that the researchers believe were developed during the same era. Together, the sites indicate a remarkably advanced civilization that arose before even the development of ceramics. However, only a small portion of the civilization's remnants has been excavated; the pyramids appear as large mounds, buried under a layer of windblown sand and collapsed rock.

Despite the fact that archaeologists have known about Caral since 1905, little research has been done there. "Caral was overlooked because, with so many archaeological sites in Peru, people who are interested in beautiful artifacts don't work on the pre-ceramic surroundings-there's no pottery or gold," Dr. Creamer said. "Caral also is in a remote location that lacks electricity, drinking water and paved roads. The real irony is that the peak of civilization in this area happened before 2000 B.C. Nothing much has happened in this valley since."

Six pyramids, also called platform mounds, are arranged around a huge public plaza area and dominate the archaeological site. The largest of these mounds, the "Piramide Mayor," is truly remarkable: 60-feet high and 500-by-450 feet at the base. Researchers believe all of the central pyramids were built in only one or two phases, indicating the presence of complex planning, centralized decision-making and mobilization of large labor forces.

Excavations at the Piramide Mayor revealed a terraced pyramid, with staircases leading up to an atrium-like platform. The final ascent leads to the flattened pinnacle, consisting of a group of rooms and a fire pit that was heavily used, probably for ceremonial or religious activities.

Researchers also have surmised construction methods. Dr. Creamer said the ancient Peruvians used shicra, or reeds, to weave mesh bags. They filled the bags with rocks from the nearby riverbed and hauled them to the construction sites. "They would carry this to the building site and throw the whole thing in," Dr. Creamer said. "In her excavations, Ruth Shady has actually been able to retrieve the rocks from individual bags."

The research team took samples of the mesh bags for radiocarbon dating. "Because Peru is so dry, the whole thing is preserved," Dr. Creamer said. "The annual plants that grew and died in a year make the best carbon samples because they give you the most reliable dates."

Each of the six pyramid mounds is associated with a formally arranged system of housing, or neighborhood. The researchers believe smaller pyramids, each with a small flight of stairs leading to rooms at the top, represent high-status housing. Dr. Shady has excavated a small portion of another area that appears to be an entire neighborhood of middle-status dwellings made of adobe.

"The people who lived in these dwellings probably were craftsmen, people who made textiles, or workers for the priests and rulers," Dr. Creamer said. Additionally, Caral had dwellings made of wood poles, cane and mud that probably were for servants or peasants.

The inland location of Caral indicates the Ancient Peruvians relied on irrigation agriculture. A contemporary canal just below the site is in the same location as the original prehistoric canal, the researchers conclude. Domesticated plant remains recovered from Caral include squash, beans, guava and cotton.

"It is probably one of the first places in the Americas where irrigation was practiced," Dr. Creamer said. "Irrigation would have been relatively easy. All someone would have to do is break a little channel off the Supe River. That's probably what happened. As irrigation methods became more sophisticated, it likely was employed in areas more conducive to agriculture. We suspect that may have led the Ancient Peruvians to leave Caral and the Supe Valley for more fertile ground."

Ultimately, the civilization founded in the Supe Valley provided the ancestral roots for the Incas, who ruled the Andes some 4,000 years later when the first Europeans arrived in the 16th Century A.D.

This research was funded the National Geographic Society, Peru's National Institute of Culture, San Marcos University in Lima, the National Museum of Natural History and the Northern Illinois University Foundation.


Science article authors

Ruth Shady, Director of the Anthropology Museum, San Marcos University in Lima, Peru.

Winifred Creamer
Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Ill.
Tel: (815) 753-7038

Jonathan Haas
MacArthur Curator of The Americas at Chicago's Field Museum.
Tel: 312-665-7829.

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For more information on the research of Dr. Creamer, Contact Tom Parisi at (815) 753-3635 or e-mail