Construction of Monumental Architecture at Caral in Peru Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Archaeological work on the monumental structures at Caral in Supe Valley, Peru, has pushed back the date for the development of an urban center in the prehistoric Americas more than a thousand years.

Summary of Event

Located 120 miles (193 kilometers) north of Lima and 14 miles (22 kilometers) from the Pacific coast, the Caral site in Peru is one of the more notable and significant archaeological discoveries of the late twentieth century. Although the site’s existence was known since the early twentieth century and later aerial photography had indicated the existence of some monumental ruins, no evidence was found at the time that would suggest Caral’s great antiquity in comparison to better-known sites. Therefore, for more than half a century, this Supe Valley archaeological locale remained neglected.

In 1994, Ruth Shady Solís, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Greater National University of San Marcos in Lima, first visited Caral and evinced an interest in excavation. Work began with a small crew in 1996. When no pottery fragments turned up in the debris after two months of labor, Shady’s excitement arose. If Caral were a preceramic site, then it was associated with an era that preceded Peru’s earliest known great populated centers with monumental architecture by more than a millennium. However, more definitive evidence was needed to convince scholars and colleagues who reacted with natural skepticism.

Among numerous artifacts uncovered were bags made from reeds that ancient workers had used to carry stones for construction. These reeds, recovered from various sectors of the site, were taken in 1999 to research institutions in Illinois, where American collaborators Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer conducted radiocarbon tests to date Caral’s antiquity. The dramatic results, made available in December, 2000, showed the test samples associated with Caral to be forty-six hundred years old. Knowledge of this startling find was first widely disseminated when the magazine Science published an article by Shady, Haas, and Creamer in its April 27, 2001, issue.

The evidence uncovered to date suggests that Caral may have been inhabited as far back as 2900 b.c.e., reached its period of splendor in terms of construction three centuries later, and endured for another thousand years until it was abandoned about 1600 b.c.e. The fact that this place was never again inhabited may have contributed to preserving the evidence of its culture in the form of artifacts and ruins that have emerged largely intact. Moreover, the absence of pottery has served to discourage extensive looting of the site through the centuries.

Caral is a 150-acre (60-hectare) complex that contained some three thousand inhabitants. This large monumental center eventually gave rise to seventeen smaller complexes strewn across the 35-square-mile (89-square-kilometer) valley. The ruins, which required mobilization of a large labor force to build, are testimony to the first strong government or state and the first urban civilization of the Americas. Excavation in Caral proper has restored or identified thirty-two major structures including seven large pyramids, residences, altars with fireplaces for burnt sacrificial offerings, tombs, and an impressive circular sunken amphitheater with graduated seating for three hundred spectators. The amphitheater most likely served as the city’s center for both ceremonial and civic events during Caral’s long history. The city’s largest pyramid sprawls over an area equal to four football fields and rises to a height of 60 feet (18 meters). Priests or worshipers gained access to the summit by means of a 30-foot-wide (9-meter-wide) staircase that rose from a sunken plaza and traversed three terraced levels. In addition, the city was divided into numerous residential districts, each possessing its local shire and facility for burnt sacrificial offerings. Caral’s principal structures were made of stone and clay. Painted buildings gave the city an exotic, colorful appearance. Walls and floors of structures, including houses, were covered with single colors such as red, yellow, blue, black, and white.

There are strong indications that Caral influenced later well-known Peruvian cultures. A partially excavated monument named Pyramid of the Gallery contains internal passageways very similar to building tunnels at Peru’s Chavín de Huantar site, which appeared one thousand years later about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north. Also, the appearance near the city of art styles and symbols like those later associated with Chavín suggests that Caral influenced later sites.

The ancient city was not built over the years in a haphazard manner. Caral’s layout conforms to a detailed plan, as would be true of later great centers of pre-Columbian America that designed urban complexes or ceremonial centers in accord with their religious views of the universal order and an understanding of astronomy. Astronomical observations were used primarily for measuring time, developing an agricultural calendar, and interpreting the divine order of the cosmos. In this dawn of prehistoric American civilization, the builders clearly had a substantial grasp of architecture, geometry, and astronomy and knew how to combine forms and lines to harmonize with their own theological and astronomical concepts. In addition, over the centuries Caral’s temples and major structures underwent periodic remodeling and enlargement, probably to conform with new astronomical knowledge.

Some of the artifacts unearthed reveal that music was a major part of ritual and daily life. From the environs of the great amphitheater, the sounds of exotic ancient melodies once reverberated. There excavators found a cache of thirty-two flutes made from condor and pelican bones. Carved on each were the same decorative designs and symbols. Later, an even larger number of cornets fashioned from llama and deer bones were found.

Social stratification and class distinctions are among the typical features displayed by early urban civilizations. Surpluses from trade and an abundant food supply led to the appearance of an elite group composed of priests, political leaders, and specialists who planned and built the city. A social hierarchy is evident in an outer sector of the city containing residences grouped in various neighborhood complexes. The elite lived in spacious, fine rooms atop pyramids. Specialists had decent ground-level neighborhoods, while laborers, fishermen, and farmers resided in much poorer quarters located farther out.

One function the ancient city served was that of a spiritual center and sacred place. The influence and pervasiveness of religion in Caral were obvious to Shady and her companions as their work progressed. Everything they uncovered and brought to light was linked in some way to spirituality. Fireplaces for offerings were numerous. The inhabitants conducted religious rituals not only in the major public places and temples but also in individual dwellings. The discovery of human bones in connection with some areas of worship or building construction revealed that some rites involved human sacrifice.

Caral was also an important center for trade. Peru’s earliest village cultures in the dry Pacific coast region were located close to or on the seashore, where marine food products were abundant. Caral, however, was located nearly 15 miles (24 kilometers) inland in a desert setting inhospitable to cultivation. Shady theorizes that a diversified economy arose there, which brought about an integrated and interdependent relationship between the interior and the seacoast.

Caral’s inhabitants appear to have developed an irrigation system by diverting rivers into canals. Farmers grew cotton, and textiles were manufactured. An important exchange occurred between these farmers and coastal fishermen, who needed cotton for making nets and supplied the city with fish, anchovies, and other marine food products. The discovery of plant fragments from the Amazon rainforest, coca plant seeds, snail necklaces, and other items from regions beyond has reinforced Shady’s belief that Caral functioned as a great commercial center linking many settled areas.

Significance

Caral’s major claim to archaeological fame is that its discovery caused a radical revision in the dating scheme for American prehistory, as this Archaic period center is about 1,000-1,500 years older than later Formative period sites in Peru and Mexico’s Gulf coast area. While the world’s oldest urban civilization, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, were reaching a peak and as the Egyptians were just initiating their pyramid building near Giza, the inhabitants of Caral were busy constructing pyramids and other monuments in Peru. As a result, Peru is now considered, along with Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Mesoamerica, as one of the six world centers in which civilization and urban life first emerged.

More of Caral’s secrets lie waiting to be revealed. The site presents an opportunity through further work to learn more about the conditions and factors that gave rise to this level of human development. It is noteworthy that Shady sees Caral as the first link in the chain of civilization leading to the Inca state and calls it the “mother city of the Inca civilization.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pringle, Heather. “The First Urban Center in the Americas.” Science 292, no. 5517 (April 27, 2001): 621-623. A very readable and interesting short article on the startling revelations about the New World’s most ancient city by a prominent writer on science and archaeology subjects. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, John F. “First City in the New World?” Smithsonian 33, no. 5 (August, 2002): 56-64. Summarizes the story behind the important discovery of Caral’s surprising antiquity and the significance of this site, its ruins, and artifacts. Contains several color photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shady Solís, Ruth, Jonathan Haas, and Winifred Creamer. “A Preceramic Site in the Supe Valley on the Central Coast of Peru.” Science 292, no. 5517 (April 27, 2001): 723-726. Article in which Caral’s chief excavator and her two North American collaborators, who verified the radiocarbon dating of Caral’s ruins, went public with the news of this major discovery. Illustrations, map, bibliography, and footnotes.

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