Caral: The Earliest Civilization in the New World

The Seeds of the Inca

Platform Mounds at Caral
Platform Mounds at Caral. Kyle Thayer

Early in 2001, a site located on the Pacific coast of Peru which had been known for over a hundred years made headlines all over the world. The site of Caral and the cluster of eighteen Late Pre-Ceramic  sites located in the Supe Valley included in what is now called the Caral-Supe Civilization are important because together they represent the earliest known urban settlement in the Americas--nearly 4600 years before the present.

By contrast, the Inca state rose during the 15th century AD; the Nasca Empire about 0 AD; Teotihuacan first flowered ca. 200 BC; Monte Albán about 500 BC; Chavín society 1000 BC; Olmec society 1200 BC. The culture represented by the Supe valley sites dates as early as 2600 BC, when Khufu was building the pyramids at Giza.

Caral is a 200-acre site located on a dry terrace, fourteen miles inland from the coastline. It has a central public area with six large platform mounds arranged around a huge plaza. The largest of the mounds is 60 feet high and measures 450x500 feet at the base. All of these mounds were built within one or two building periods, which suggests a high level of planning, generally associated with state-level societies. The public architecture has stairs, rooms, and courtyards; and three sunken plazas suggest society-wide religion. Of the 18 other sites near Caral, ten are more than 60 acres in size; all of them have similar public architecture.

Crops included squash, beans, and cotton, grown in the dry desert climate with the assistance of an intricate irrigation system.

Caral and Its Importance

Excavations at Caral have been undertaken by Jonathan Haas from Chicago's Field Museum, Ruth Shady Solis of the Anthropology Museum at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and the Field Museum, and Winifred Creamer, Northern Illinois University, and the Field.

It was featured in a Science article in April 2001, after a long and careful investigation into the radiocarbon dates from the site. With dates like these, you have to be sure.

The interesting thing about Caral and the rest of the Supe Valley sites is that it illustrates the problems archaeologists have dealing with so-called "urban settlements" and "state societies." Building monumental architecture such as pyramids and irrigation canals and cities takes planning, pretty sophisticated planning, in fact. When archaeologists first stumbled across the cities of our ancient pasts, we began developing our theories of why states rise. One of the most prevalent theories was that it takes a combination of factors to create the political climate that creates public works; and that usually means full-scale agriculture, ​craft specialization, a writing system, ceramic production, social stratification, even metallurgy.

But the Supe Valley sites, and other early urban settlements such as Catalhoyuk in Turkey [6300-5500 BC], apparently arose without all of these elements. Although we can't know the political structure of the people who built Caral, we know that they did not have ceramics or metallurgy or writing.

The investigations of Caral and the other Supe Valley sites promise to teach us how people choose to become urban dwellers.

Archaeological Sites and Issues

Cerro Lampay, Aspero, Huaca Prieta (all in Peru); see also Quipu Use at Caral


Recent excavations at Caral by Ruth Shady Solis have recovered a quipu, an artifact found at later Incan sites that may be a form of record keeping. See South America's Oldest Writing System for more information.

Haas, Jonathan and Winifred Creamer 2006 Crucible of Andean Civilization: The Peruvian Coast from 3000 to 1800 BC. Current Anthropology 47(5):745-775.

Haas, Jonathan, Winifred Creamer, and Alvaro Ruiz 2004 Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico region in Peru. Nature 4321020-1023.

Vega-Centeno Sara-Lafosse, Rafael 2005 Ritual And Architecture in a Context of Emergent Complexity: A Perspective From Cerro Lampay, A Late Archaic Site In The Central Andes.

University of Arizona.