"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Friday, 22 May 2015

The 5,000-year-old Pyramid City of Caral

The 5,000-year-old Pyramid City of Caral

The 5,000-year-old Pyramid City of Caral
The ancient city of Caral. Image source.


It is widely taught in the field of ancient history that Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, gave rise to the first civilizations of mankind. However, few are aware that at the same time, and in some cases before some of these societies emerged, another great civilization had sprouted - the Norte Chico civilization of Supe, Peru – the first known civilization of the Americas. Their capital was the Sacred City of Caral – a 5,000-year-old metropolis complete with complex agricultural practices, rich culture, and monumental architecture, including six large pyramidal structures, stone and earthen platform mounds, temples, amphitheatre,  sunken circular plazas, and residential areas.

The Supe Valley, which lies 200 miles north of Lima on the Peruvian Pacific coast, was  surveyed in 1905 by the German archaeologist Max Uhle, who revealed the first archaeological discoveries in the area. However, it was not until several decades later that  full-scale excavations took place, revealing the tip of a very large iceberg. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered that the hills originally identified as natural formations were actually stepped pyramids, and by the 1990s the full extent of the great city of Caral had emerged. But another great surprise was yet to come – in the year 2000, radiocarbon dating carried out on reed carrying bags found at the site revealed that Caral dated back to the Late Archaic period beginning around 3,000 BC.  Caral had now provided the most extensive evidence of an early complex society in the Americas.

The remains of the Sacred City of Caral, Peru
The remains of the Sacred City of Caral, Peru. Image source.

Caral is one of 18 settlements identified in the Supe valley, covering an area of around 65 hectares. It is situated on a dry desert terrace overlooking the lush valley of the Supe River. Exceptionally well-preserved, the site is impressive in terms of its design and the complexity of its architecture. The city’s plan and some of its features, including pyramidal structures and residences of the elite, show clear evidence of ceremonial functions, signifying a powerful religious ideology.

The centre of the Caral complex consists of a central public area with six large pyramids (platform mounds) arranged around a huge plaza. The largest of the mounds, located in a dominating position within the urban plan of Caral, is 60 feet high and measures 450 x 500 feet at the base, covering an area nearly the size of four football fields. From the top of the great pyramid, the rulers of Caral would have been able to monitor the entire city.  A 29-foot wide staircase opens into a series of small rooms, which include an atrium and a sacred altar. The altar room has a small hole in the floor, in which it appears that offerings were once burned.

Remains of the Great Pyramid of Caral
Remains of the Great Pyramid of Caral. Image source: Christopher Kleihege / UNESCO

The public architecture has stairs, rooms, courtyards, an amphitheatre, and three sunken plazas. Accommodation seems to have consisted of large rooms atop the pyramids for the elite, ground-level complexes for craftsmen, and small outlying dwellings for workers. In total, it is estimated that Caral was home to a population of about 3,000 people. Researchers believe the model of the city was used by many civilizations that came after the Norte Chico.

In 2001, the Sacred City of Caral in Supe was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  UNESCO writes:

“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.”

Unique artifacts shed light on daily life in 5,000-year-old city of Caral


The ancient site of Canal in Peru


The Sacred City of Caral is a 5,000-year-old metropolis which represents the oldest known civilization in the Americas, known as the Norte Chico. When it was first discovered, archaeologists had no idea of the extent of this great city, nor its age. It took some 90 years before researchers discovered its immense significance.

While the inhabitants of Caral lacked ceramics and limited art, they built huge monuments, including pyramids, plazas, amphitheatres, temples, and residential areas, had extensive agriculture, ate a varied diet, developed the use of textiles, used a complex system for calculating and recording, built water supply, and developed an intricate irrigation system. They traded widely with neighbouring societies, reaching at least as far as the Amazon jungle, as evidenced by carvings of monkeys.

Interestingly, no evidence of warfare has ever been found in Caral – no defensive structures, no weapons, and no bodies with violent injuries.  Archaeologists believe the people of Caral were a peaceful culture who spent considerable time studying the heavens, practicing their religion and playing musical instruments.

The finely crafted flutes of Caral

One of the most surprising findings at Caral was the discovery of 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones, and 37 cornets (musical instrument like a small trumpet) made of deer and llama bones. The musical instruments, which date to around 2,200 BC, were discovered in the exterior of a circular plaza of a pyramid complex, an area where hundreds of people could gather for community events.

A selection of the flutes found at Caral
A selection of the flutes found at Caral. Image source.

The instruments are decorated with engraved figures, including monkeys, supernatural birds that combine features of some other creatures such as felines or monkeys, bird-faced snakes, a double head comprising a bird and a snake, and two anthropomorphic figures. They were played by blowing into the central hole and covering either the left or right hand holes.

In 2001, researchers held the Archaeo-Musicological Research Workshop for the Flutes of Caral, in a bid to reproduce the sound of each one of them, just as the ancient dwellers might have heard them millennia ago. 

The ancient mathematical and recording system of Caral

Another rare discovery that she light on the civilization found at Caral and in the Supe Valley was a segment of knotted strings known as a quipu.  Quipus, sometimes called ‘talking knots’, were recording devices that consisted of coloured, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair, or made of cotton cords. It is known that by the time of the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. Together, the type of wool, the colours, the knots and the joins held both statistical and narrative information that was once readable by several South American societies. In some villages, quipus were important items for the local community, and took on ritual rather than recording use.  

The quipu found in Caral
The quipu found in Caral. Image source.

Until the discovery of the quipu in Caral, no other examples had been found that dated back earlier than 650 AD. So the significance of this finding was that it was now apparent that inhabitants of Andean South America were using this complex recording system thousands of years earlier than they initially thought.

Time-keeping in Caral – the Monolith Huanca

Across from the main staircase of one of the pyramids (platform mounds) in Caral is a solitary monolith known as ‘Huanca’ (the standing stone), which stands at 2.15 metres in height. Archaeologists believe that this monolith was used for astronomical and ceremonial purposes, and for determining the time of day. Measurements of the Huanca’s position in relation to the pyramids found that it sits exactly due north of one of the pyramids, known as ‘Huanca pyramid’. The angle of the stone to the top of the pyramid marks the of the summer and winter solstices .

The monolith Huanca in Caral
The monolith Huanca in Caral. Image source.

Religion and spiritual beliefs

Very little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Norte Chico civilization which inhabited Caral. There is abundant evidence of drug use normally associated with Shamanism, which may provide some clues, but there is hardly any art in Caral, one of the key sources that archaeologists use to learn about the daily life and beliefs of ancient civilizations. Some scholars claim that the very few human remains found at Caral are sacrificial victims. However, in reality there is nothing to indicate that the individuals had been sacrificed as opposed to normal death.  

There is one artefact that may serve to shed light on the beliefs of the Norte Chicos.  Etched onto the side of a gourd (a hard seed pod used for carrying water), which dates to 2280-2180 BC, is a depiction of a sharp-toothed, hat-wearing figure who holds a long stick or rod in each hand, which has been named the Staff God.

The Staff God
Left: The Staff God on the side of the gourd. Credit: Jonathon Haas. Right: An outline showing the Staff God more clearly. Credit: Jill Seaguard

Interestingly, the same image of the Staff God appears on pottery urns of the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures dating from 1,000 BC, all the way through to 1,000 AD, and the deity is figured prominently on the Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca. Could beliefs in a Staff God have begun with the Norte Chico civilization in Caral nearly 5,000 years ago and dispersed outwards to influence later civilizations?

Staff God on the Gateway of the Sun
Staff God on the Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku. It bears remarkable similarity to the deity depicted on the gourd found in Caral. Image source.

For an unknown reason, Caral was abandoned rapidly after a period of only 500 years.  It is believed that climate changes forced the inhabitants to find a new location for their city, although where exactly they went is uncertain.  However, the fact that the Staff God, and the use of the quipu is found some 2,000 years later in other locations throughout South America, suggests that the Norte Chicos took with them their rich culture, religion, technology, and practices, and came to influence some of the greatest civilizations followed over the next 4,000 years. 

The Lost Pyramids of Caral
(49:02) @ https://youtu.be/ZdFTRYKRWjs


Exploring the oldest civilization in the Americas – Goshen College
Oldest evidence of Andean religion found - Nature
Sacred City of Caral-Supe - UNESCO
Caral: the oldest town in the New World – Philip Coppens
Caral, the oldest city in America – Go2Peru
Caral: (Pyramid Complex) – Ancient-Wisdom

For more information about lost civilisations see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/lost%20civilisation
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