Lost Cities – Caral

Today we jump across the Atlantic to one of my other passions; pre-Colombian civilisations, to bring you yet another “Lost City”. This is of course one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the last century (in my opinion at least!), and one of the most magnificent sites in the world, with a very impressive team taking care of it. I am, of course, talking about the sacred city of Caral-Supe, or simply known as Caral. The site is currently under the protection of La Zona Arqueológica Caral (ZAC), which is a public entity created by a state decree in 2003 specifically to preserve the area. The location is, however, not quite what you would expect for a wonderful Andean discovery. Caral is in the desert terrace that overlooks the Supe river valley, approximately 23km away from the Pacific coast. So why is Caral included in our lost cities series? In a similar way than Gedi (https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/lost-cities-gedi/ ), Caral was also abandoned. However, this happened more gradually over time.  The period of occupation for the site is understood to be between 2600BC and 2000BC. That is the conservative approach. However, there are evidence that suggest the area was settled much earlier than this, which would have made Caral the oldest city in the entirety of the American continent. The data takes us as far back as the Pyramids of Giza. Nonetheless, the recent discovery of Bandurria has taken the claim for oldest city in Peru, going back to the 4000BC. Although there had been previous investigations in the Supe valley (early 1900s), it wasn’t until 1948 when Paul Kosok – the researcher that brought us the original investigations on the Nazca lines – put Caral back on the map but under the name of Chupacigarro. However, his finds were dismissed due to the lack of typical artefacts previously found in the Andes cultures. It was later in the 70s when the investigations of the Peruvian archaeologists Carlos Williams brought it to the forefront of these types of investigations. Since then more people have come to investigate what has now been classified as the biggest thriving urban area in Andean Peru, and probably the city after which many more were modelled in the years to come. Nonetheless, the most important name is that of the woman who actually understood the site for what it was and that has allowed for its preservation by the ZAC: Ruth Martha Shady Solís. She started investigating the site in the 90s under the “Caral Project”. Her constant research and dedication have been plenty fruitful: she has enough evidence to establish the Caral (or Norte Chico civilization as it is known in English), as one of the earliest, or even the first known cultures in all South America.

So how did Caral get so lucky in terms of preservation? Well, the thing is that it was originally mistaken as a natural formation. Plus, thanks to the lack of any valuables (items of gold or other precious materials) being visible, it received little attention from looters. In addition, there are no evidence of warfare unlike in the previous two sites that we have seen so far. So, as you can see, things went well for the conservation of the ancient settlement,despite it only became a site recognise by the UNESCO in 2009. It is thanks to this that it has gained the status of one of the best investigates cities in the Norte Chico area of Peru. Now that you know about how the site got to us,you’d probably be wondering what there is actually left of it. Well, the total complex is of about 60 hectares renown for its architectural complexity.Amongst the structures found, there are huge stone and earthen platforms mounts and sunken circular courts, as well as pyramids and what appear to be residential buildings. The archaeology reflects this was a peaceful society,with no discoveries of fortifications or human remains that present signs of armed conflict. The people of Caral, much like the people in Gedi seemed to have thrived in commerce and had a strong economy. One of the most surprising pieces of evidence found was that of a quipu – also known as talking knots – which are these recording devices made out of fabric, similar to an abacus. Interestingly, quipus were believed to have been invented by the Inca,but the evidence of Caral show this system dates much further back. The city of Caral expanded amply across the region creating 19 temples plus what is known as Templo Mayor (main temple in Spanish) Caral itself. This is the reason why the site is mainly identified as a religious centre which is highlighted by the further evidence of ritualistic items found in the settlement and in the surrounding area. In addition, Caral also shows evidence of public buildings which reflect a central government and administration; it has been suggested that there were different social strata which this is evident in the development of the city and the different urban areas.So what type of people were the citizens of Caral? A total of 32 flutes have been recovered here by the archaeologists, which suggests the inhabitants were skilful artisans. In fact, the dating of the site was achieved through the carbon dating of woven carrying bags known as Shicras found in some of the temples. There are also evidence that suggest Caral was an advanced civilisation.In 2000 a team of archaeologist(Marco Machacuay and Rocío Aramburú) discovered a geoglyph just to the west of the site, which resembles a long screaming face, believed to be somewhat related  to the find in Cerro Sechin, just 150 km north of the site. It is likely that the geoglyph was part of the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of this society. Finally,I think is it fair to point out that there are ample evidence of knowledge of astronomy, supported by different utensils, as well as a monolith ( known as huanca) located in one of the main squares.Shady believes that the monolith would have been used for the observation of time and the movement of the astral bodies.

Now you will probably be wondering, how does such an advanced and rich civilisation simply disappear? Well, Rodriguez argues that the abandonment of this settlement happened slowly over time, since the 2000BC – with it being deserted by the 1800BC. He argues that the most likely causes for this occurrence are due to natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and El Niño. The peak population of Caral would have been of around 3000 at its peak, however, if one was to consider the let’s call it metropolitan area of the settlement in the Supe Valley, this would encompass a total of approximately 20000 (Shady). The communities that formed the populace of Caral are believed to have been ayllus – an extensive population with a common familial origin that congregated to work for the envelopment of the lands of religious leaders of some sort, which
is a common type of conglomeration in Quechua societies. This was the essential glue of this population and what allowed them to thrive and developed for such a long time, hence emphasising the role of Caral as a scared city. Perhaps, the city lost religious significance and due to the fabric of its society started a slow mass exodus on to other thriving areas.

If you wanted to find out more about Caral, I am sad to say you will have to learn some Spanish as the majority of the publications are done by the local archaeologists. Shady and Rodrigues – which I have mentioned in my piece – have a multitude of books on the subject. Amongst these, I would recommend Rodríguez, Gonzalo (2015). Guerrero, Ricardo; Pease, María Elena, eds. Culturas antiguas del Perú: Caral. Hacia la primera civilización de América. As well as, Shady, Ruth; Cáceda, Daniel; Crispín, Aldemar; Machacuay, Marco; Novoa, Pedro; Quispe, Edna (2009). Caral. La civilización más antigua de las Américas: 15 años develando su historia. Nevertheless, I believe a lot of the work done by Shady has been translated to English. Otherwise have a look at Andean Archaeology III: North and South, Volume 3, edited by William Isbell, Helaine Silverman – also a pretty good book with an overall narrative.


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