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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
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.
Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University,
Tel: (815) 753-7038
MacArthur Curator of The Americas at Chicago's Field Museum.