Caral

Well, today I went to see the remains of the oldest civilisation in the Americas and by far the most ancient thing I’ve ever seen. Caral is around 5000 years old (so much older than the pyramids in Egypt, for example).

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The leaflet from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture reckons that this makes it the second oldest civilisation in the World (after Mesopotamia: 5200 years, but before Egypt: 4700 years, India: 4600 years, Crete: 4000 years, and China: 3900 years). I have no idea whether their figures are accurate, but even if they aren’t, I think it’s fair to conclude that Caral is pretty darned old.

Caral lies 26km inland in the fertile Supe valley, where there are 20 different sites from the same period/culture, ten of which are currently being investigated. The site I visited is the “sacred city” of Caral, the capital. As with Chavin de Huantar, this seems to have been a pretty peaceful religious site, with no evidence of warfare. It’s just above the valley bottom, which may have been to avoid building on good agricultural land.

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The site covers 66 hectares, with 8 pyramids. Until 1994, these bumps in the landscape were just thought to be small hills, until an archaeologist came along and started excavating.

The pyramids are built of stone (so all those mud brick structures I’ve been looking at can, I think, be viewed as a retrograde step) and are amazingly well preserved for their age. They’re truncated pyramids (rather than “pointy” pyramids as in Egypt). New layers were added over time by building outwards as well as up (a bit like at the much much later Huaca de la Luna where they built a complete new outer facade every time they added a new level). On top would have been a temple for the priest to use.

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Each priest / temple would have had a particular specialisation (agriculture, astronomy etc) so would have had a key role in different ceremonies throughout the year.

In addition to the pyramids there was a big ampitheatre for public events, an open area between the pyramids and also remains of lots of housing (the population is estimated to have been 2500-3000).

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This is much earlier than the development of ceramics or metalwork. Artefacts found at the site include unfired clay figurines (which apparently don’t count as ceramics), musical instruments made from carved bone, raw undied cotton, a woven cotton dress, bowls made from gourds, needles made from bone, wooden utensils such as spoons and so on. Interestingly they also found a quipu (a recording system of knotted cords previously associated only with the Incas; the discovery of a quipu of the Caral period instigated a major rewrite of this aspect of Peruvian history!).

There are also niches for offerings. Offerings found at the site include 2 sets of polished whale vertebrae.

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There are 5 ceremonial altars, each with a built-in air inlet facing the prevailing wind. Behind the altar in this picture are the remains of some houses. Luckily, the inhabitants kept their household rubbish close to home, from which it has been inferred that they had a very balanced diet including seafood and a variety of agricultural products that were most likely grown in the valley. The seafood is evidence of trade with contemporary groups on the coast, and there is also evidence of much longer-distance trade in the form of some Spondylus shells (which are only found much further North off the coast of Ecuador).

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The Caral civilisation is thought to have lasted over 1000 years and, rather than ending through war/conquest, to have ended as a result of natural climatic events (possibly a strong El Nino causing people to leave the valley).

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