Two hundred kilometres north of Lima lies the recently discovered remnants of one of the most ancient centres of a civilisation yet to be unearthed in modern times. The Caral civilisation is the oldest know of civilisation in the Americas and one of the oldest in the world. It was a Pre-Caramic civilisation and it is believed that the Quecha language originated there. Caral covers approximately 60 hectares (with most of it still unexcavated) and is estimated to have had around 3000 inhabitants in its heyday.
Caral was fist discovered in 1905 by German archaeologist Max Uhle. The excavations were not dated properly at the time and archaeologists assumed that the uncovered structures were built by a recent Andean civilisation. However, Ruth Shady, a Peruvian archaeologist, visited Caral in 1994 and immediately realized that Caral was potentially much older.
Results of subsequent carbon dating proved that (astonishingly) some artefacts from Caral were no less than 4600 years old. To put this into perspective, Caral was built 4000 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu, which was founded in 1450. At Caral’s ancient astronomical observatory there are geoglyphs which were created 3300 years before the famous Nazca Lines in southern Peru. Equally, Caral is as much as 3300 years older than some of the Maya cities in Mesoamerica.
The centre of Caral was built upon a desert platform providing protection from natural disasters while being situated adjacent to a fertile valley providing access to agricultural land and water. Caral’s significance is important in a modern context for various reasons:
No traces of warfare or weapons have been found since excavations began, pointing to a peaceful civilisation that apparently did not sense the need to protect itself from potential invaders. Gender equality appears to have been a feature of Caral with men and women both enjoying high status. Caral featured sophisticated sustainable urban planning and boasted intricate and extensive irrigation systems indicating an advanced form of ancient sustainable development.
Caral was a mother civilisation which means that it provided the foundation for the formation of later civilisations. It developed at the same time as the Old World civilisations in Egypt, India, Mesopotamia and China, but developed in almost complete isolation. The ancient city of Caral literally remained lost for centuries and it is speculated that the city was deliberately buried to preserve it when its inhabitants realised that their civilisation was collapsing.
Today it can be observed that Caral contained monumental buildings, sunken plazas, collective assembly spaces and hierarchical residential units. Some buildings were used for sacred rituals or private rites while buildings had symbolic meaning and ancestral relevance. Astronomy, time-keeping, accounting and mathematics were practised in Caral. The city’s infrastructure design also featured seismic resilience and underground air ducts which fuelled fires for heating and cooking.
The first tourists apparently only started visiting Caral around 2013. It is therefore in many ways still a relatively undiscovered site and is off-the-beaten-track, even by Peruvian standards.
By J.J. Montagnier
(All photographs taken on 17 March 2019)
Peru Ministry of Culture – Caral Educational Excursions Program
The Road to Caral Slideshow