Peru Holds Oldest New World City

New York City is the Big Apple. New Orleans is the Big Easy. Now, make way for

Caral and several nearby sites that may be of comparable age. Ringberg / Field Museum

Caral’s platform mounds loom large from a distance. Haas / Field Museum

Caral, an ancient Peruvian city that qualifies as the Big Mound.

Six huge, mound-shaped ceremonial platforms at Caral date from 4,000 years ago, an

archaeological team reports in the April 27 Science. That makes the site, located

in the Supe Valley about 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the oldest-known urban

center in the Americas.

Moreover, preliminary evidence indicates that at least 2 of 17 other comparably

sized archaeological sites in the Supe Valley flourished at the same time that

Caral did, says Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Haas suspects that a network of ancient, inland metropolises, including Caral,

traded extensively with coastal outposts. “Supe Valley cities were the big gorilla

on the ancient South American landscape,” he says. “Everyone else was mouse


Caral’s massive size and great antiquity demonstrate that large-scale South

American civilizations need not have originated on the coast, as one influential

theory holds, according to Haas and his colleagues Ruth S. Solis of Universidad

Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru, and Winifred Creamer of Northern

Illinois University in De Kalb.

Although archaeologists discovered it in 1905, Caral had attracted little

scientific attention until now. It lies in a remote area with no paved roads or

basic amenities. Moreover, the site contains no pottery, since its residents

didn’t make ceramic vessels. This has discouraged both archaeologists and looters.

The site’s central zone contains the six large mounds, many smaller platform

mounds, two sunken circular plazas, and various residences and buildings. Platform

mounds housed high-status citizens and served ceremonial functions.

For radiocarbon dating, the researchers focused mainly on reed fibers from woven

bags they found at the site. Caral’s workers used the bags to carry rocks for

building the mounds, the researchers say. The reeds, which live for about 1 year,

provide highly specific age estimates of when the workers built the platforms.

Construction occurred from about 4,090 to 3,640 years ago, the researchers say.

Activity at the site may have begun as early as 4,700 years ago, Haas adds.

Remains at the site indicate that Caral’s people grew crops such as beans and

squash–but not corn–in irrigated fields. Seafood, probably acquired through

trading, provided most of their protein.

For perhaps the first time in the New World, authoritarian leaders assumed power

at Caral and forced their subjects to do the heavy labor needed for massive

building projects, Haas proposes.

The political structure at Caral may not have been as authoritarian as Haas

envisions, remarks archaeologist Daniel Sandweiss of the University of Maine in

Orono. Still, he calls the new age estimates for Caral “very significant.”

“Caral is a huge site considering how old it is,” says archaeologist Betty J.

Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “This is a

revolutionary discovery.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology