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April 2, 2014 archeology, peru

Caral: The Oldest Civilization in the Americas

Caral was already a thriving metropolis when the great Pyramids of Egypt were only being built!!
Caral, the oldest civilization in the Americas. Image by Erika Vicente from Pixabay
Caral, the oldest civilization in the Americas. Image by Erika Vicente from Pixabay

Caral (also referred to as Caral-Supe) is a stunning ancient city located in the Supe Valley of Peru. Today travelers can visit the Caral Ruins, which are believed to be the remains of one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Rewind time and the city of Caral was once a thriving metropolis for its local residents around the same time that the Egyptian pyramids were being built! Interestingly,  Caral remains relatively unknown on an international level.

Table of Contents

Caral: A brief history

The Caral Ruins are located about 200 km (125 miles) north of Lima  in Peru.

Paul Kosok, an American history and government professor, was one of the first to study Caral in 1948. At the time, his findings were largely ignored due to the fact that he didn’t find any typical and sought after Andean artifacts on site. Peruvian anthropologist and archaeologist, Ruth Shady, later took over the exploration of this desert city of pyramids.

The evidence collected suggests that Caral was inhabited  some   5,000 years ago,  between 2600 and 2000 BCE (Before the Common Era, or Before Christ).  For comparative purposes, the  Great Pyramid of Khufu  in Egypt was built around 2600 BCE. 

Caral, Lima, Peru For Less The remains of Caral are well preserved Photo by Roger D’Hondt

Excavators described Caral as the oldest American urban center, but this claim to fame was later challenged when older ancient sites were found close by. Caral is however the largest known ancient city in the Andean region . Researchers believe that the city may have been an urban design model that was later adopted by various Andean civilizations over the course of the next millennia . In this respect, the discovery of Caral answers questions about the development of other early cities built after Caral, and the origins of civilization in the Andes.

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The size of Caral – think BIG

Caral is approximately 60 hectares in size and was home to 3,000 inhabitants. This makes Caral one of the biggest Norte Chico sites: the Norte Chico civilization was a complex pre-Colombian society encompassing over 30 population centers in what is now known as the Norte Chico region of the north-central Peruvian coast.

Caral is only one of a total of 19 settlements found in the Supe Valley. The remains of the Caral urban complex spreads out more than 150 acres (607,000 ms) and includes residential buildings, temples and plazas. 

Caral, Peru For Less Stairs leading up to a temple excavated at Caral Photo by Roger D’Hondt

The most stunning findings at Caral include the Main Pyramid, the Amphitheater Pyramid, and the residential Quarters of the Elite. The main pyramid at Caral is 60 ft (18 m) tall and almost as large as 4 football fields! Ruth Shady believes that Caral was the main focus of the civilization living in the Supe Valley.

What sets Caral apart?

What sets Caral apart is not just its size, but also its age . Carbon dating of various organic materials found throughout the site indicate that the pyramids are approximately 5,000 years old!

Southern Seas 2010 These visitors admire the beautiful amphitheater at Caral Photo by Daniel Barker/Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the people that lived in Caral were dedicated to buildings with civic intensity, dedication to construction improvements and additions, and the  city saw periods of great change . They were always making and remaking the stone-and-mortar walls, plazas, and residences; building new floors; painting and repainting surfaces; breaking down walls, and making new ones. They were  truly  one of the first civilizations that were focused on making home improvements.

The artifacts: Love, not war

No weapons, battlements or mutilated bodies were found during the Caral excavations . This crucial evidence lead anthropologist Ruth Shady’s research to suggest that this was a peaceful society based on commerce and pleasure.

When excavating one of the pyramids, flutes made from pelican and condor bones were found along with cornetts made from llama and deer bones. The stunning remains of a  child found wrapped and buried with a stone bead necklace was  also discovered.

Another  artifact found at Caral was a quipu . The quipu  is a record keeping system in which knots are tied on a rope. According to Gary Urton, a quipu was used in a binary manner, to record both phonological and logographic data. The Incas later used and perfected this system, providing further proof that the Caral civilization culture impacted the Inca Empire.

Inca Quipu An Inca quipu that is on display in Lima’s Larco Museum Photo by Claus Ableiter/Wikimedia Commons

For many decades, archaeologists have searched for a missing link in archeology or a “mother city”- a city that could answer questions about why and how humans became civilized. Researchers have long looked for the answer to this question in other parts of the world, such as in Egypt, China, India, and Mesopotamia (Iran). No one expected that the first signs of city life could be found in a Peruvian desert.

For many years  historians believed that the fear of war was perhaps a primary motivator for people to build cities and form complex societies to protect themselves against threat. Caral however has no traces of  warfare or weapons, yet the city became a thriving metropolis. This finding challenges modern ideas of the origins of cities as based on conflict.

Caral Map A detailed map of Caral Photo by Zona Caral

Ruth Shady explained that Caral was home to a gentle society: “This great civilization was based on trade in cotton. Caral made the cotton for the nets, which were sold to the fishermen living near the coast. Caral became a booming trading centre and the trade spread.”

Caral was built on the basis of trade, not bloodshed. Warfare actually emerged way later in history. And this is what the finding of Caral as a “mother city” indicates: civilizations are not born in conflict – they are born in peace. It is time to re-think the emergence of civilization!

After almost 10 years of excavation, the great proportions of this grand site is now emerging in Caral, but much work remains to be done. When standing in the main plaza with pyramids surrounding you on every side, the power of a long-lost ancient city is felt. Discoveries made in the area continue to help answer the question: how and why did humans become civilized?

Learn more!

Check out this documentary on the Lost Pyramids of Caral

Discover the ancient civilization of Caral

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Related posts: Peru Travel Guide: Lima archeological sites Peru: A northern journey to ancient treasures

Hendrika Janssen
Hendrika Janssen
Hendrika is Belgian but she considers herself a citizen of the world as she has lived in many different countries before moving to Peru. She fell in love with South America after her first visit to the continent in Bolivia, and has since then spent a lot of time traveling in the area. She especially enjoys Peru for its diversity, delicious food, and rich history.
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