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Civilization lost?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 2002


On a desert outcropping known simply as NN2, archaeologist Ruth Shady SolĂ­s is kneeling over the remains of a clay wall, sweeping away dust with a small whisk broom. Then she stands up, baffled.

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"Levels 1 through 3 are straightforward," she says, pointing to three separate tiers of dirt flooring at this site, some 120 miles north of Lima, Peru. But the next tier proves complicated because it's built of two different kinds of fill, one light gray, the other a reddish gray-brown studded with straw.

Were both sections built at the same time? If so, why the change in material? Remodeling was complicated, it seems, even 4,000 years ago.

The two-tone floor remains one of the small puzzles of the much bigger mystery known as Caral. Confirmed last year as the oldest city in the Americas, Caral has shattered the myth that civilization got a late start in the New World. Nearly 5,000 years ago, around the time that Sumerians developed writing and before Egyptians built the Great Pyramid at Giza, people here in the Supe River Valley began building a city.

They knew nothing about writing and had no knowledge of ceramics. But they planned and built huge public works, evolved a specialized and stratified society, and developed a sophisticated and diversified economy. The findings at Caral have added another millennium to the age of civilization in the Americas.

But here in Peru, their discovery evokes mixed emotions from the archaeologists who work the site and the rural people who live around it. There's pride, certainly, but also puzzlement.

"The campesinos always ask: Why did our ancestors have the capacity to build such an important city, and we live so poorly and don't have the ability to do similar things?" says Dr. Shady, the Peruvian archaeologist who recognized the importance of Caral five years ago. The answer "is very difficult for me."

It involves the rise and fall of civilizations.

A reversal of fortune

If ever there were a spot commemorating the shifting fortunes of history, Caral is it. Set in a mountainous desert not unlike southern Nevada, bordered by a long, narrow stretch of green fields fed by the Supe River, Caral has spent millennia covered by dust and debris. Early in the 1900s, archaeologists realized that its six large dunes were too regularly shaped to be natural. But it took decades before excavation began, and until recently, archaeologists believed the site was relatively modern. In 1996, when Shady began working at Caral, she quickly guessed that it dated from the preceramic era but still had very complex architecture. Her excavations began to prove her theory.

For example, two partially excavated pyramids reveal adjacent, circular sunken plazas - a combination of square and round that would come to characterize later structures throughout Peru. The presence of plazas suggests two things. First, that the early society had evolved a need for large ceremonial gathering places. (Shady's team also unearthed 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones, suggesting a knowledge of music and, perhaps, public ceremonies.) Second, the labor required to build such large public works needed some kind of hierarchy to plan the development and organize the workers.

The pyramid builders had unique building methods. They would tie up rocks in fiber bags, called "shicras," and then transport them to the construction site and lay them, bag and all, as fill to build up the pyramid. Shady's team has uncovered enough of these shicras to notice differences in their quality: some knotted expertly, others less so. This suggested Caral had developed a division of labor with people specializing in different trades.

A civilization arises because it controls something important. Mesopotamia prospered once it irrigated the desert and produced an abundance of food. Caral diverted water from the Supe River to irrigate fields, growing staples such as squash and beans. But its secret weapon may have been cotton. By growing cotton, used to make fishing nets, the people of Caral could trade for fish with the communities on the Pacific coast 12 miles away. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of fish bones.

The community also traded with communities in the jungle farther inland and, apparently, with people from the mountains. Shady has found the remains of jungle plants at Caral as well as aspects of mountain architecture in the buildings of Caral. The Supe Valley hosts other communities, some of them much older and some within view of the city itself, but none of them approaches the scale and sophistication of this city.