An ancient civilisation was flourishing in Peru
over five thousand years ago, making it the oldest known complex
society in the Americas. The findings were reported by Nature
magazine in 2004.
Archaeologists used radiocarbon dating to chart
the rise and fall of the little-known culture, which commanded
three valleys to the north of Lima. The society, which flourished
between 3500 to 1800 BC, built ceremonial pyramids and complex
The find served to cast doubt on the idea that
Andean civilisation began by the sea. The scale and sophistication
of these sites was unheard of anywhere in the new world at this
time, according to Jonathan Haas, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology
at the Field Museum, Chicago. The cultural pattern that emerged in
this small area in the fourth millennium BC later established a
foundation for over four thousand years of cultural florescence in
other parts of the Andes.
The civilisation, which was characterised by stone
pyramids, large ceremonial structures and agriculture, spread over
three windy valleys in the Norte Chico region of Peru. There were
about twenty separate residential centres, which seemed to compete
with each other to produce the most imposing architecture - some
creating buildings as high as twenty-six metres (85 feet).
According to researchers there was also some
evidence of organised religion. They probably did have organised
religion, according to co-author Winifred Creamer, a Northern
Illinois University (NIU) anthropologist. Objects were yielded
which point to religion, such as anthropomorphic figurines.
The ancient society had a close inter-dependent
relationship with nearby coastal settlements, which were uncovered
much earlier by archaeologists. The people of the inland Norte
Chico area grew cotton, which they traded with their coastal
neighbours in exchange for fish. In turn, the coast dwellers used
the cotton to make their fishing nets.
Archaeologists had long known about the settlements
on the coast of Peru. They were simple fishing communities, and
academics thought they represented the first civilisation in South
America. But carbon dating was now proving that the inland sites of
Norte Chico were just as old as the coastal dwellings, forcing experts
to reassess the idea that all early civilisations were based by the
In Norte Chico, the path of cultural evolution in
the Andean region diverged from a relatively simple hunting and
gathering society to a much more complex pattern of social and
political organisation. With this new information, ideas would need
to be rethought about the economic, social, and cultural development
of the beginnings of civilisation in Peru and all of South America.
After 1800 BC, when the settlements were abandoned,
it is likely that the Norte Chico people moved to other parts of Peru,
taking their innovations and culture with them. One very likely scenario
is that they took their irrigation further north and further south to
areas that were more productive. It is interesting that in the Casma
valley, which is directly to the north, there are even bigger pyramids,
and that was the next major cultural event to take place following the
Norte Chico decline.
A question of qualification
Professor Creamer believed it was possible that other
major Andean cultures, such as the Chavin civilisation, which thrived
around 900-200 BC, may have descended from the Norte Chico people, or
may have been culturally influenced by them.
However, there was still some discussion taking place
about whether the Norte Chico society actually qualified as a
'civilisation' itself. Various anthropologists had different definitions
of the word, and the Norte Chico people fell outside some of them. Some
people would not class them as a civilisation. They had very few arts
and crafts, for example - they were pre-ceramic.
If civilisation needs urbanisation to qualify for the
categorisation, then as yet it couldn't be shown that these sites qualified.
Whatever the definition of civilisation, Professor Creamer and her team
were just happy that archaeologists had discovered these historic sites
before they were destroyed by modern agriculture.
Peru has laws to protect sites like this one, but they
don't always work, the professor pointed out. The chance to explore
these sites before they were buried under drip irrigation or chicken
farms was invaluable.