Just at the time ancient Egyptians were erecting their first major pyramids along the Nile River 4,600 years ago, a heretofore unknown New World civilization began building huge pyramids near the coast of what is now Peru.
That discovery, based on research by Chicago-area scientists and reported Friday in the research journal Science, indicates complex societies emerged in the Americas centuries earlier than previously thought.
“This isn’t something just a little earlier than other known early urban centers in this hemisphere–it’s a lot earlier,” said Field Museum anthropologist Jonathan Haas, who has been excavating the site with his wife, Northern Illinois University anthropologist Winifred Creamer, and a Peruvian colleague since 1999. “Something of this size doesn’t occur anywhere else for another 1,000 years.”
“This may actually be the birthplace of civilization in the Americas,” Creamer said.
Site discovered in 1905.
The site, in a remote desert area along the Supe River, was first discovered and recorded by archeologists in 1905, but lay ignored and unexamined for decades. It is near Caral, a farming village that to this day has no electricity or running water.
The people who lived there thousands of years ago apparently rounded out a diet of fish, anchovies and sardines by cultivating beans, guava fruits, avocados, peanuts and the Andean plants lucuma and pacae. They also grew cotton for fishing nets but did not make pottery.
“Because this was a pre-ceramic culture,” said Haas, “this is not a rich site. There aren’t the goodies here, the ceramics, gold, tombs and magnificent textiles that attracted archeologists to other places in Peru.
“But the lack of riches also served not to draw looters and vandals, so we have something pristine to work with here.”
The most startling artifacts at Caral, one of 18 large sites in the area that the researchers believe were evolving at about the same time, are the huge stepped pyramid structures.
The largest, dubbed “Pirimade Mayor” measures 500 feet long on two sides and 450 feet on the other two. It rises 60 feet, with a flat top that city builders covered with rooms, chambers, stairways, halls, altars and hearths for ceremonial activity.