Field Museum Anthropologists Establish Date and Importance of the Americas' Oldest City

Apr 26, 2001, 01:00 ET from The Field Museum

    CHICAGO, April 26 /PRNewswire/ -- New radiocarbon dates of plant fibers
 indicate that the site of Caral (120 miles north of Lima, Peru) was home to
 the earliest known urban settlement -- with monumental corporate architecture
 and irrigation agriculture -- in the New World. The surprising evidence pushes
 the development of these important advances in the Americas back to as early
 as 2627 B.C. -- a time when the pyramids were being built in Egypt.
     "Our findings show that a very large, complex society had arisen on the
 coast of Peru centuries earlier than anyone thought," said Jonathan Haas, PhD,
 MacArthur curator of anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum.  The new research
 is being published in Science April 27, 2001, in a paper coauthored by Haas
 and his colleagues:  Dr. Ruth Shady, director of the Anthropology Museum at la
 Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and research associate at The Field
 Museum; and Dr. Winifred Creamer, associate professor of anthropology at
 Northern Illinois University and adjunct curator at The Field Museum.
     Sitting on a dry desert terrace above the green valley floor, Caral is one
 of 18 large contemporary sites in the Supe Valley on the Pacific Coast of
 Peru. Together, the sites indicate a remarkably advanced civilization for this
 period -- despite a lack of ceramics that has puzzled anthropologists for
 years.
     This lack of ceramics contributed to the Supe Valley sites being largely
 overlooked ever since they were first noted almost 100 years ago. But this new
 research has established that Caral thrived some 4,600 years ago -- even
 before the introduction of ceramics in Peru -- and played a pivotal role in
 the social, political and economic development of civilization in South
 America.
     "The location offers an opportunity to investigate one of the fundamental
 questions of Western archeology and social science, namely, what is the origin
 of complex, centralized, highly organized society in the Americas?" Dr. Haas
 said.  "This is a project that comes along once in a generation and offers
 opportunities rarely glimpsed in the field of archeology."
     The radiocarbon samples from Caral were taken in connection with Dr.
 Shady's on-going research. Excavations at the site are focused on assessing
 the range and function of architectural features and determining the sequence
 and construction methods of the site's monumental mounds.
 
     Pyramids dominate landscape
     Caral is dominated by a central zone containing six large platform mounds
 arranged around a huge public plaza area. The largest of these mounds,
 "Piramide Mayor," is truly remarkable:  60-feet high and 450-by-500 feet at
 the base. Research indicates that all six central mounds were built in only
 one or two phases, indicating the presence of complex planning, centralized
 decision-making, and mobilization of large labor forces.
     The terraced mounds were used for administrative purposes.  Stairs, rooms,
 courtyards and other structures were constructed on top of the pyramids as
 well as on the side terraces. Excavations will determine whether there were
 rooms, passageways or even tombs inside the mounds.
     Other architecture at the site indicates a high level of cultural
 complexity.  The varied styles and quality of Caral's housing point to a
 richly stratified society. And three sunken circular plazas at the site
 testify to the emergence of a well-organized religion with open, public
 ceremonies.  The largest of these sunken plazas is 150 feet in diameter.  Such
 plazas are an architectural form that continued throughout the Andes for
 several thousand years.
     Ultimately, the social, political and religious system founded in the Supe
 Valley provided ancestral roots for the great civilization of the Incas, who
 ruled the Andes some 4,000 years later when the first Europeans arrived in the
 16th century A.D.
     Other villages in Peru were occupied before 2600 B.C., and some of them
 even had small-scale public platforms or stone rings.  However, all of the
 sites in the Americas occupied in the 3rd millennium B.C. are dwarfed by the
 200-acre size of Caral and its huge monuments.  Of the 18 recorded preceramic
 sites in the Supe Valley, 10 are more than 60 acres in size.  Any one of these
 ten, if taken alone, would probably be the largest settlement in the New World
 during the 3rd millennium B.C. Collectively, this concentration of urban
 settlements -- all with monumental architecture and all based on irrigation --
 is simply unparalleled in any period.
     Caral's location some 14 miles inland from the Pacific is also important.
 Because the Peruvian coast is extremely arid, the only source of water for
 fields is the Supe River, and the only way to get the river water to arable
 land is by way of irrigation canals.  Thus, as Dr. Creamer noted, "the farmers
 at Caral may have been the Americas' first pioneers to build canals and open
 the vast potential of channeling river water to rich desert lands surrounding
 a river's valley bottom."
     Caral's domesticated plants included squash, beans and cotton. No corn has
 been found, and its absence establishes for the first time that this starchy
 staple was not necessary to the development of a complex society in South
 America.
     In sum, this research shows that Caral and the Supe Valley is exceptional
 because of its early date for an urban center; its large size; the presence of
 irrigation agriculture; its huge, monumental architecture; its pristine,
 relatively unexplored condition; and the existence of nearby contemporary
 sites of comparable magnitude.
     This research was funded by 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.
 
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SOURCE The Field Museum
    CHICAGO, April 26 /PRNewswire/ -- New radiocarbon dates of plant fibers
 indicate that the site of Caral (120 miles north of Lima, Peru) was home to
 the earliest known urban settlement -- with monumental corporate architecture
 and irrigation agriculture -- in the New World. The surprising evidence pushes
 the development of these important advances in the Americas back to as early
 as 2627 B.C. -- a time when the pyramids were being built in Egypt.
     "Our findings show that a very large, complex society had arisen on the
 coast of Peru centuries earlier than anyone thought," said Jonathan Haas, PhD,
 MacArthur curator of anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum.  The new research
 is being published in Science April 27, 2001, in a paper coauthored by Haas
 and his colleagues:  Dr. Ruth Shady, director of the Anthropology Museum at la
 Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and research associate at The Field
 Museum; and Dr. Winifred Creamer, associate professor of anthropology at
 Northern Illinois University and adjunct curator at The Field Museum.
     Sitting on a dry desert terrace above the green valley floor, Caral is one
 of 18 large contemporary sites in the Supe Valley on the Pacific Coast of
 Peru. Together, the sites indicate a remarkably advanced civilization for this
 period -- despite a lack of ceramics that has puzzled anthropologists for
 years.
     This lack of ceramics contributed to the Supe Valley sites being largely
 overlooked ever since they were first noted almost 100 years ago. But this new
 research has established that Caral thrived some 4,600 years ago -- even
 before the introduction of ceramics in Peru -- and played a pivotal role in
 the social, political and economic development of civilization in South
 America.
     "The location offers an opportunity to investigate one of the fundamental
 questions of Western archeology and social science, namely, what is the origin
 of complex, centralized, highly organized society in the Americas?" Dr. Haas
 said.  "This is a project that comes along once in a generation and offers
 opportunities rarely glimpsed in the field of archeology."
     The radiocarbon samples from Caral were taken in connection with Dr.
 Shady's on-going research. Excavations at the site are focused on assessing
 the range and function of architectural features and determining the sequence
 and construction methods of the site's monumental mounds.
 
     Pyramids dominate landscape
     Caral is dominated by a central zone containing six large platform mounds
 arranged around a huge public plaza area. The largest of these mounds,
 "Piramide Mayor," is truly remarkable:  60-feet high and 450-by-500 feet at
 the base. Research indicates that all six central mounds were built in only
 one or two phases, indicating the presence of complex planning, centralized
 decision-making, and mobilization of large labor forces.
     The terraced mounds were used for administrative purposes.  Stairs, rooms,
 courtyards and other structures were constructed on top of the pyramids as
 well as on the side terraces. Excavations will determine whether there were
 rooms, passageways or even tombs inside the mounds.
     Other architecture at the site indicates a high level of cultural
 complexity.  The varied styles and quality of Caral's housing point to a
 richly stratified society. And three sunken circular plazas at the site
 testify to the emergence of a well-organized religion with open, public
 ceremonies.  The largest of these sunken plazas is 150 feet in diameter.  Such
 plazas are an architectural form that continued throughout the Andes for
 several thousand years.
     Ultimately, the social, political and religious system founded in the Supe
 Valley provided ancestral roots for the great civilization of the Incas, who
 ruled the Andes some 4,000 years later when the first Europeans arrived in the
 16th century A.D.
     Other villages in Peru were occupied before 2600 B.C., and some of them
 even had small-scale public platforms or stone rings.  However, all of the
 sites in the Americas occupied in the 3rd millennium B.C. are dwarfed by the
 200-acre size of Caral and its huge monuments.  Of the 18 recorded preceramic
 sites in the Supe Valley, 10 are more than 60 acres in size.  Any one of these
 ten, if taken alone, would probably be the largest settlement in the New World
 during the 3rd millennium B.C. Collectively, this concentration of urban
 settlements -- all with monumental architecture and all based on irrigation --
 is simply unparalleled in any period.
     Caral's location some 14 miles inland from the Pacific is also important.
 Because the Peruvian coast is extremely arid, the only source of water for
 fields is the Supe River, and the only way to get the river water to arable
 land is by way of irrigation canals.  Thus, as Dr. Creamer noted, "the farmers
 at Caral may have been the Americas' first pioneers to build canals and open
 the vast potential of channeling river water to rich desert lands surrounding
 a river's valley bottom."
     Caral's domesticated plants included squash, beans and cotton. No corn has
 been found, and its absence establishes for the first time that this starchy
 staple was not necessary to the development of a complex society in South
 America.
     In sum, this research shows that Caral and the Supe Valley is exceptional
 because of its early date for an urban center; its large size; the presence of
 irrigation agriculture; its huge, monumental architecture; its pristine,
 relatively unexplored condition; and the existence of nearby contemporary
 sites of comparable magnitude.
     This research was funded by 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.
 
                     MAKE YOUR OPINION COUNT -  Click Here
                http://tbutton.prnewswire.com/prn/11690X73752454
 
 SOURCE   The Field Museum