Peruvian valley a cradle of civilization

Ancient city declared oldest in hemisphere

April 27, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CARAL, Peru - While Egyptians were building their pyramids some 4,600 years ago, orchestras here in what's just been declared the Western Hemisphere's oldest city are believed to have been playing flute concerts.

Archaeologists found the site and 17 others in Peru's Supe Valley nearly 100 years ago, but the remains were never precisely dated. In today's edition of the journal Science, researchers declare the Supe Valley home to a civilization as old and advanced as any in the world, except for Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq.

Caral, based on the age of plant fibers found in its ruins, was inhabited between 2627 B.C. and 2020 B.C.

That makes it hundreds of years older than thought, said study co-author Jonathan Haas, curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. Other structures in and near Caral, their ages untested, remain buried in the sand and may ultimately prove Supe Valley peoples to date from 3000 B.C. or before.

What's left are huge rock mounds that rise out of sand dunes 120 miles north of Lima. Two stones weighing a ton or more, transported from somewhere, serve as gates to the largest mound, 60 feet high and 500 feet across. Its symmetrical staircases rise from the barren sandscape, overseeing a cluster of lesser mounds and ruins covering about 200 acres - a third of a square mile in what thousands of years ago was a lush valley.

The new dating on Caral "changes history as we know it," said Ruth Shady Solis, excavation chief at Caral and director of the San Marcos National University's Archaeological and Anthropological Museum in Lima.

Archaeologists had figured that nomads roamed the Americas beginning about 12,000 years ago, but didn't settle into a grouped society - except for small fishing villages with a handful of huts - until somewhere between 2000 and 1800 B.C. New World civilizations, the discovery suggests, were contemporary with those in China, India and Egypt rather than much younger.

Brian Billman, a University of North Carolina professor of anthropology who specializes in Peruvian archaeology but wasn't involved in the Caral research, described the new dates as "solid."

Shady estimated that 3,000 people lived there. Haas said the ultimate figure might be in the tens of thousands.

Caral's trash contains lots of anchovy and sardine skeletons, suggesting that Supe Valley people traded with Pacific coast fishermen who may have gotten cotton for fishing nets in return. The trash also produced the shell of a snail now found only in the Amazon River.

The Pacific is about 10 miles away; the Amazon, hundreds of miles east over the Andes.

To water crops, Caral peoples dug the first irrigation system in the New World. It was a crude network of canals channeled and dammed with rock and wood that diverted water from the Supe River to crops.

"It is a desert coastal area," Shady said. "Man had to intervene and transform the land to make it habitable."

Archaeologists were most excited about a shallow sandy pit, more than 100 feet wide in which they found 32 flutes made from pelican and condor bones.

"They were found together," Shady said. "That makes us think the instruments belonged to an orchestra. They are different sizes and with different decorative designs."

At the main mound, called Piramide Mayor, the two huge and unique gateway stones prove that the Caral people traveled great distances.

"I have traveled all these surrounding mountains," said lead field archaeologist Marco Antonio Machacuay, "and have never seen any boulders like them."

Why the civilization declined is not known, said Haas, but he said it could be because the soil became exhausted from some 600 years of agriculture and new complexes were built to the north and to the south.

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