At the same time as ancient Egyptians were building their pyramids, people along the Peruvian coast were erecting massive stone structures in the first major city in the Americas 4,600 years ago, archaeologists said on Thursday.
A husband-and-wife team from Illinois and a colleague in Lima say Caral, located in the Supe River valley of central Peru, may represent the birthplace of civilization in the Americas. The site was first discovered in 1905 but remained unexplored. Its significance was unknown until new radiocarbon dating revealed its stunning antiquity.
The researchers found the site dated back to 2627 B.C. That meant the emergence of urban life and monumental architecture in the New World took place nearly 800 years earlier than experts previously had thought.
Nestled on a parched desert terrace above a green valley floor, Caral is dominated by a central zone with six large platform mounds built from quarried stone and river cobbles set around a huge public plaza area. The largest structure soars 60 feet (18 meters) high and measures 450 feet by 500 feet (140 meters by 150 meters) at the base.
“I think this is really cool stuff. This is a wonderful site, one of the most exciting things I can think of,” said Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago.
Haas, his wife Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University, and Ruth Shady Solis of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima studied the site. The findings appear in the journal Science.
Caral was flourishing at the same time as the pyramids were going up in Old Kingdom Egypt and early complex civilizations were percolating in Mesopotamia, China and perhaps India.
“You probably had some of the biggest structures in the world outside of Egypt in the Supe valley,” Haas said.
The researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of reed fibers from woven bags found at Caral that workers had used to haul stones for the buildings and actually left them inside the enormous structures. Because the reeds live for only one year, the dates were extremely specific.
Caral predated by thousands of years some of the great New World civilizations — the Incas in the 15th century A.D. in Peru, the Mayans in the first millennium A.D. in Central America and the Aztecs in the 15th century A.D. in Mexico.
Caral is located 120 miles (200 km) north of Lima 14 miles (23 km) inland from the Pacific Ocean.”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,” Creamer said.