Ancient City A Major Challenge for Science.

Archaeologists have discovered the oldest city in the Americas 120 miles north of Lima, in Peru. Caral, which is 4,600 years old and flourished at the time the great pyramids were being built in Egypt, challenges many of the long-held beliefs of scientists, who have stated that no major urban areas existed in the Americas that long ago and that civilization began on the coasts and moved inland from there.

Researchers have known about Caral since 1905, but had no idea of its true age. They now have evidence that it was built as much as 1,400 years before the oldest previously known American civilization of the Olmec in Mexico. Very little excavation was carried out there before this recent project, because there were few artifacts scattered around to indicate its age. The few artifacts that had been recovered were made of bone or wood and crudely fashioned stones used as tools. The inhabitants of Caral had not yet learned how to make pottery, so there were no shards to attract the attention of archaeologists. They used hollow-out gourds for storage. The monumental construction of Caral was carried out at a time when early Americans were thought to be living simple lives in small fishing villages. The city was built before corn was domesticated or pottery was developed?two things archaeologists have always felt were essential for the creation of an urban environment. ?This is one of the most important discoveries in New World archaeology in the last 30 years,? says Bill Billman of the University of North Carolina. ?It completely shakes up our notion of what?s going on in this time period. Every textbook on Andean archaeology will have to be rewritten as a result.?

?It?s really a once-in-a-lifetime discovery,? says Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, who was one of the leaders of the project. ?It looks like Caral is really the first complex society in the New World.?

Most of Caral still remains buried, but what has been excavated is impressive. The site encompasses a 160 acre area, with 6 large pyramid-shaped platforms grouped around a central plaza, plus several smaller pyramids that had buildings perched on top. The pyramids were stepped, with a stone staircase running up one side, much like the later Mayan pyramids, ?except much bigger,? according to Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University. She noted that the largest pyramid is not ?remarkably high? at 60 feet, but the base?500 feet long and 450 feet wide?is ?huge? by American standards.

The large stone platforms were built from quarried stone that was moved to the sites and filled in with smaller stones from a nearby river. Archaeologists suspect that the stairs, rooms, courtyards and other structures that were built on top of some of the platforms are remnants of official residences and administrative sites.

The city has 3 sunken plazas and eight areas which contained housing. There were apartment buildings, modest homes and grand mansions, pointing to an established social pecking order. Some houses were made of adobe, while more modest dwellings were constructed of reed stiffened with mud.

The cobblestones inside the platforms were the key to dating the city. The builders carried the stones in bags woven from local reeds, which were added to the growing piles of stones. The research team carbon dated the organic material of the bags and concluded that construction began as early as 2627 BC. The complex was efficiently built, with centralized planning and an large labor pool. Scientists aren?t sure how many people lived there. ?It could have been 1,000, 10,000 or 50,000,? says Haas. ?I honestly don?t know.?

The Supe River Valley area of Peru, where Caral is located, is hot and dry?not an ideal climate for such a large construction project. The builders installed one of the world?s first complex irrigation systems in the city, diverting the water from the Supe River more than a mile upstream. They used the water to irrigate their crops and were able to grow guava, beans, peppers, cotton and fruits. There is no evidence of corn, potatoes, or any other crop that could sustain a large population, giving rise to the speculation that they may have traded with another culture for staple foods. Archaeologists have always believed that large cities could not develop until food staples such as corn were grown, so that food could be given out in exchange for construction labor.

Scientists speculate that cotton took the place of food as payment. Cotton could be woven into twine and used to make fishing nets. Caral could have traded their cotton with the nearest coastal village, 14 miles away, receiving fish in return. Haas and his team recovered desiccated feces from the site and ?all have anchovy bones in them,? he says. The nearby Pacific area contains some of the best fishing in the world, with anchovies and sardines in the shallow waters and giant tuna further offshore. ?If they ate nothing but anchovies, and harvested the stock at 40 percent, the sea could have supported 6 million people,? says Michael Moseley of the University of Florida.

?What you don?t have is the fancy artifacts and all the other bells and whistles,? he adds. ?People are farming or fishing. You only get a focus on personal wealth with the onset of staple agriculture.?

Haas believes the research at ancient sites like Caral is important because ?it helps us understand the beginnings of power relationships. These mounds were built because somebody told the people to build them.? The same question can be asked about the pyramids in Giza: how did a small group of leaders get enough power over their fellow citizens to make them work so hard? ?It boils down to, ?Why do have a government??? says Haas.

?Besides Caral, there also appear to be four other sites you can see from one to another,? says Creamer. ?If they are contemporaneous, we are looking at thousands of people in the valley at a very early date.?

?The real irony,? Haas says, ?is that the peak of civilization in this area happened before 2,000 BC. Nothing much has happened in this valley since.?

Opinion: This exciting discovery leaves us with a scientific problem. As things now stand, it appears that a population of primitive hunter-gatherers suddenly created an immense urban complex in Peru as their first step toward civilization. There is likely to be more to the story than this, much more. It?s way past time for a general reassessment of mankind?s experience in the Americas.

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