The Norte Chico Civilization of South America

amphitheater with unexcavated pyramids of sacred city of Caral in background
Temple and amphitheater with unexcavated pyramids of sacred city of Caral.

George Steinmetz/Getty Images

The Caral Supe or Norte Chico (Little North) Traditions are two names archaeologists have given to the same complex society. That society arose in four valleys in northwestern Peru about 6,000 years ago. The Norte Chico / Caral Supe people built settlements and monumental architecture in the valleys arising from the arid Pacific coast, during the Preceramic VI period in Andean chronology, some 5,800-3,800 cal BP, or between 3000-1800 B.C.E.

There are at least 30 archaeological sites that are ascribed to this society, each with large-scale ceremonial structures, with open plazas. The ceremonial centers each span several hectares, and all are located within four river valleys, an area of only 1,800 square kilometers (or 700 square miles). There are numerous smaller sites within that area as well, who have complex ritual features on a smaller scale, that scholars have interpreted as representing places where elite leaders or kin groups could meet privately.

Ceremonial Landscapes

The Norte Chico/Caral Supe archaeological region has a ceremonial landscape that is so densely packed that people at the larger centers could see other larger centers. Architecture within the smaller sites also includes complex ceremonial landscapes, including numerous small scale ceremonial structures among the monumental platform mounds and sunken circular plazas.

Each site contains between one and six platform mounds ranging in volume from about 14,000–300,000 cubic meters (18,000–400,000 cubic yards). The platform mounds are rectangular terraced stone structures built with 2–3 m (6.5-10 ft) high retaining walls filled with a combination of soil, loose rocks, and woven bags called shicra which contained stones. The platform mounds vary in size between and within sites. At the top of most of the mounds are walled enclosures arranged to form a U-shape around an open atrium. Stairs lead down from the atria to sunken circular plazas ranging from 15–45 m (50–159 ft) across and from 1–3 m (2.3–10 ft) deep.


The first intensive investigations began in the 1990s, and the Caral Supe / Norte Chico subsistence was in debate for some time. At first, the society was believed to have been built by hunter-gatherer-fishers, people who tended orchards but otherwise primarily relied on maritime resources. However, additional evidence in the form of phytoliths, pollen, starch grains on stone tools, and in dog and human coprolites has proven that a wide variety of crops including maize were grown and tended by the residents.

Some of the coastal residents did rely on fishing, people living in the interior communities away from the coast grew crops. Food crops grown by the Norte Chico / Caral Supe farmers included three trees: guayaba (Psidium guajava), avocado (Persea americana) and pacae (Inga feuillei). Root crops included achira (Canna edulis) and sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), and vegetables included maize (Zea mays), chili pepper (Capsicum annuum), beans (both Phaseolus lunatus and Phaseolus vulgaris), squash (Cucurbita moschata), and bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Cotton (Gossypium barbadense) was cultivated for fishing nets.

Scholars Debate: Why Did They Build Monuments? 

Since the 1990s, two independent groups have been actively excavating in the region: the Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico (PANC), led by Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solis, and the Caral-Supe Project, led by American archaeologists Jonathon Haas and Winifred Creamer. The two groups have different understandings of the society, which at times has led to friction.

There have been several points of contention, most conspicuously leading to the two different names, but perhaps the most basic difference between the two interpretive structures is one that at the moment can only be hypothesized: what drove mobile hunter-gatherers to build monumental structures.

The group led by Shady suggests that Norte Chico necessitated a complex level of organization to engineer the ceremonial structures. Creamer and Haas suggest instead that the Caral Supe constructions were the result of corporate efforts that brought together different communities to create a communal place for rituals and public ceremonies.

Does the construction of monumental architecture necessarily require the structural organization provided by a state level society? There are definitely monumental structures which have been built by Pre-Pottery Neolithic societies in Western Asia such as at Jericho and Gobekli Tepe. But nonetheless, identifying what level of complexity the Norte Chico / Caral Supe people had has yet to be determined.

Caral Site

One of the largest ceremonial centers is the Caral site. It includes extensive residential occupation and it is located some 23 km (14 mi) inland from the mouth of the Supe river as it flows into the Pacific. The site covers ~110 ha (270 ac) and contains six large platform mounds, three sunken circular plazas, and numerous smaller mounds. The largest mound is called Piramide Mayor, it measures 150x100 m (500x328 ft) at its base and is 18 m (60 ft) high. The smallest mound is 65x45 m (210x150 ft) and 10 m (33 ft) high. Radiocarbon dates from Caral range between 2630-1900 cal B.C.E.

All of the mounds were built within one or two building periods, which suggests a high level of planning. The public architecture has stairs, rooms, and courtyards; and the sunken plazas suggest society-wide religion.


Another important site is Aspero, a 15 ha (37 ac) site at the mouth of the Supe River, which includes at least six platform mounds, the largest of which has a volume of 3,200 cu m (4200 cu yd), stands 4 m (13 ft) high and covers an area of 40x40 m (130x130 ft). Built of cobble and basalt block masonry plastered with clay and shicra fill, the mounds have U-shaped atria and several clusters of decorated rooms that exhibit increasingly restricted access. The site has two huge platform mounds: Huaca de los Sacrificios and Huaca de los Idolos, and another 15 smaller mounds. Other constructions include plazas, terraces, and large refuse areas.

Ceremonial buildings at Aspero, such as the Huaca del los Sacrificios and Huaca de los Idolos, represent some of the oldest examples of public architecture in the Americas. The name, Huaca de los Idolos, comes from an offering of several human figurines (interpreted as idols) recovered from the top of the platform. Aspero's radiocarbon dates fall between 3650-2420 cal BCE.

End of Caral Supe / Norte Chico

Whatever drove the hunter/gatherer/agriculturalists to build monumental structures, the end of the Peruvian society is fairly clear—earthquakes and flooding and climate change associated with the El Nino Oscillation Current. Beginning about 3,600 cal BP, a series of environmental disasters struck the people living in the Supe and adjacent valleys, impacting both marine and terrestrial environments.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Norte Chico Civilization of South America." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, October 9). The Norte Chico Civilization of South America. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Norte Chico Civilization of South America." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).