Construction of El Paraíso in Peru

The construction of El Paraíso reflected the continued development of early complex society on the Pacific coast of Peru.

Summary of Event

Early theories of cultural evolution assumed that complex societies and civilization could not have emerged until agriculture became the primary means by which people obtained their subsistence. These theories reasoned that only agriculture could have created sufficient surplus to finance the construction of monumental architecture, long-distance trade, and more complex forms of political organization. These theories were challenged in the 1970’s by a number of archaeologists working on the north central Pacific coast of Peru. Prominent among these was Michael Moseley, who developed an alternative theory of emergence of civilization that posited that at least on the north coast of Peru, large architectural complexes and politically advanced societies appeared without substantial investment in agriculture and instead were founded upon the exploitation of highly productive marine resources. Domesticated plants, including gourd and cotton, were not consumed, but used instead to construct fishing gear such as nets and their floats. These technologies enabled the inhabitants of this region to accumulate surplus production of fish and fish meal, which supported extensive building programs. Cultivation of plant subsistence staples were assumed to follow well after the initial occupation and expansion of these sites. At the time, Moseley’s theory was highly controversial and, consequently, it stimulated new fieldwork in the region as researchers searched for data to either support or disprove his theory.

The period during which these societies emerged is called the Late Preceramic, dating from c. 2500-1500 b.c.e. More than twenty sites with monumental architecture and hierarchical political organization flourished on the north central Peruvian coast at this time, and the largest and one of the most impressive of them was El Paraíso. Found along the south side of the Chillón River, the site is said to cover at least 125 acres (51 hectares), and probably much more. One author estimates that more than 100,000 tons (more than 90 million kilograms) of locally available rock were quarried to construct the buildings at the site. Because the site is vast, relatively little of it has been either excavated or mapped extensively. At the minimum, structures at the site range from eight or nine stone buildings that contain as few as three rooms to large complexes measuring almost 1,000 feet (300 meters) by more than 300 feet (100 meters). Some of the complexes were massive, with walls greater than 3 feet (1 meter) in thickness. Most of the stone used in construction was cut and trimmed. One of the largest complexes, labeled Unit 1, appears to have been built in several stages and grew by accretion. Earlier rooms were filled in with rubble and leveled, and new, larger rooms were built atop them. This gives Unit 1 and similar complexes a multistory appearance. Unit 1 was at least 20 feet (6 meters) in height in its final stage of construction. Staircases can be found both within the structure and exterior to it, with the latter used as a primary entrance. A number of the rooms of Unit 1 were covered with a red and yellow plaster, and at least one of the rooms contained a hearth that showed no signs of domestic activity, and has been described as a ceremonial feature. Because few artifacts were found in these rooms, it has been difficult to define a function for them.

However, El Paraíso is not typical of Late Preceramic centers with monumental architecture. Unlike many of the contemporary monumental complexes elsewhere on the coast such as Aspero or Huaca la Florida, El Paraíso does not have large, open plazas, circular sunken courts, and U-shaped mound constructions that were clearly planned. The absence of these features has led to considerable speculation about the function of the architecture at El Paraíso and whether it was used for ceremonial or secular activities. Most researchers now agree that the U-shaped complexes and large mound constructions were ceremonial in nature and served a religious function. These constructions were not used as residences; instead they functioned as the sites of rituals, ceremonies, and displays of power and wealth of the local elites who directed their construction.

The obvious differences between El Paraíso and other Late Preceramic sites led to additional excavations during the 1980’s designed to determine the range of activities at the site, the use of the monumental architecture, and the basis of social and political power of its inhabitants. American archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter and his colleagues excavated a number of areas of the site, including rooms in building complexes, areas between large complexes, and locations devoid of constructions. They discovered extensive middens, or trash dumps, just below the modern ground surface. Analysis of the remains encountered in these middens confirmed that, consistent with Moseley’s theory, fish and mollusks were the primary protein source of the site’s inhabitants. The single most important species of fish was the anchovy (Engraulis ringens). Although large quantities of mollusks were found at the site, their contribution to diet at El Paraíso was smaller than that at contemporary Late Preceramic sites. Terrestrial sources of protein, such as deer and camelids, were almost nonexistent.

However, the range and types of plant remains recovered were surprising. Domesticated plants included cotton and gourd, both of which had technological roles. Other cultivated plants had roles in the diet, including squash, chili peppers, tubers, and common and lima beans. Fruits were also present, such as guava and lucuma. Although some have suggested these fruits were cultivated, they could also have been gathered in some abundance from the river valley.

These data suggest that diet at El Paraíso was a complex mix of gathered resources, such as fish, shellfish, and some plants, and cultivated plants, such as tubers and beans. However, it is also clear that cultivated plants were not grown in great abundance and did not form the basis of surplus production. Fish and shellfish remained the source of this surplus.

The dominant plant recovered at the site was cotton, and although its was expected to be of economic importance, the quantity of cotton present was far greater than expected. Quilter and his team have suggested that the cotton was the true economic engine that drove the growth and expansion of El Paraíso. They argue that although cotton had a fundamental technological role to play at the site, the vast quantities present may also have been generated by demands for textile production. In the Andes, cloth and fabrics have had a long tradition of being used as prestige goods. High quality fabrics with elaborate designs have been found at other coastal Late Preceramic sites, and it seems likely that El Paraíso was engaged in large-scale cotton farming and textile production. Indeed, the Chillón River Valley is one of the largest in the region, and it is highly suitable for extensive cotton farming.

If this scenario is correct, cotton formed the primary basis of wealth for the site’s inhabitants and was extended by surplus production of fish and shellfish. Together, these were used to obtain the labor to construct the large room complexes, which are most likely residences rather than ceremonial spaces, although it is possible that the two functions overlapped in practice. The degree to which this wealth was translated into a more complex political organization remains unclear, however, because burials with costly goods have yet to be found at the site.


The importance of El Paraíso lies in its differences when compared to other Late Preceramic sites on the central Peruvian coast. Unlike most other sites, El Paraíso never had a significant ceremonial component and was instead a massive, and wealthy, residential site. Unlike the others, which show clear evidence of hierarchical forms of political order, no such hierarchy is present at El Paraíso. Although the diet of the site’s inhabitants was dominated by gathered resources, some cultivated plants were also present. Cotton, while known to be important, was far more central to El Paraíso’s economy than suspected. Together, these lines of evidence suggest that while the outlines of Moseley’s theory of the maritime foundations of civilization on the Andean coast are correct, there were multiple pathways to complexity and power, and that El Paraíso represents one alternative toward social and political complexity.

Further Reading

  • Donnan, Christopher, ed. Early Ceremonial Architecture in the Andes. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985. Provides a useful discussion of important sites contemporary with El Paraíso.
  • Moore, Jerry. Architecture and Power in the Ancient Andes: The Archaeology of Public Buildings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A comprehensive examination of how public buildings were used by different Andean civilizations, including those of the Late Preceramic.
  • Moseley, Michael. The Incas and Their Ancestors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. A useful synthesis of Andean prehistory and archaeology.
  • Moseley, Michael. The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization. Menlo Park, Calif.: Cummings Press, 1975. Outlines the foundations of the theory that early Andean civilization was based primarily on marine resources and that plant cultivation came much later in time.
  • Quilter, Jeffrey, Bernardino Ojeda, Deborah Pearsall, Daniel Sandweiss, John Jones, and Elizabeth Wing. “Subsistence Economy of El Paraíso, an Early Peruvian Site.” Science 251 (1991): 277-283. A detailed discussion of the subsistence remains recovered from the site.