A 5000 Year Old Pyramid City: Caral, Peru

This month we are investigating a non-European pre-modern civilisation and I took some time to research a topic that really gripped my interest. Usually in Europe the founding of civilisation is kept within the confines of Egypt, China, India and Mesopotamia when studying academic history. Very few universities offer modules that look into the deeper past of the Americas, and more specifically for this post South America. I had always had an interest in the Incan Empire and slowly I started to work my way backwards through history until I found Caral in the country that is now known as Peru. Caral is a UNESCO World Heritage site sat in the middle of a dry desert near the greener valley of the Supe River. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities and is the oldest centre of civilisation in the whole of the Americas. Caral dates back around 5000 years to the Late Archaic Period of the Central Andes. The aim of this month was to look into what people would class as pre modern in different civilisations and I thought 5000 years ago would be sufficient! It is 626 hectare archaeological site that is listed as a sacred city when it was introduced into UNESCO in 2009.

Caral is known to be impressive in its size and complexity since its stone and earthen platform mounts are architecturally sound and clear in layout for archaeologists to examine. There are seventeen other urban settlements in the same area but Caral gives strong evidence of six large pyramidal structures making it one of the most complex. The Archaic period of the Central Andes is not well known outside of academics and Latin Americans, but there is a wealth of knowledge for archaeologists in terms of residential mobility, changes in resources and major population growth; much like what occurred elsewhere in world at several points in history when civilisation was shifting between eras.

For archaeologists Caral offers an insight into the city plan and its components such as residence spots for the elite and evidence for a strong religious ideology. The site reflects Caral as a fully developed socio-political state with the discovery of the early use of quipu, a recording device, and language. Images of the city gives the aura of a compact and consolidated state with clear boundary lines. It is the best site for Ancient Peruvian civilisation discovery that is known to have influenced the other sites that lie around it, specifically along the Peruvian coast line.

There has not been much scholarship that has escaped academia and into the public eye but for ancient archaeology it is incredibly interesting place to research. The mere fact that Caral is mostly intact had suggested early abandonment and very late discovery. It is known to have only been occupied twice; once in what is called Middle Formative/Early Horizon around 1000BCE, and once in the States and Lordships period between 900 and 1440AD. Both of these settlements occurred on the outside of the city therefore not disturbing the ancient archaeological structures. The site itself has been proven several times over to have been founded between 3000 and 1800BCE, therefore the Late Archaic Period, through radiocarbon analysis. There is no evidence of looting since the site lacks the appearance of gold or silver finds. There have been no modern structures built nearby except those associated with tourism since it is kept as natural as possible in its cultural landscape. The land surrounding the Supe Valley is devoted to non-industrial agriculture as most of the development occurred in Lima which lies to the south of the site.

Pyramids have been found within the city confines and one particularly stands out as the largest which is positioned in the most urban part of Caral’s landscape. It is sixty feet high and is approximately 1900 feet in perimeter. Archaeologists and historians have deduced that here is where the rulers of Caral lived and would have been able to monitor the whole cities progress. Previous digs have unearthed a series of rooms including an altar room (from the burns into the ground assumed to have been made by offerings), atriums and state rooms. Assumptions about the aristocracy are that they lived in the largest rooms atop the various pyramids and low societal workers lived in small outlying dwellings. The estimated population is around 3000 that had access to an amphitheatre, plazas and courtyards.

Most of this information come in extracts as there has been no full analysis that I could find to research from however UNESCO stated:

“The Sacred City of Caral-Supe reflects the rise of civilisation in the Americas. As a fully developed socio-political state, it is remarkable for its complexity and its impact on developing settlements throughout the Supe Valley and beyond… The design of both the architectural and spatial components of the city is masterful, and the monumental platform mounds and recessed circular courts are powerful and influential expressions of a consolidated state.” (Sourced from: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-americas/5000-year-old-pyramid-city-caral-002016)


It is a fascinating city and one that deserves more attention outside of Latin America for which I happy to have had a chance to research into something completely different to me.

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