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Native Americas

First Andes Civilisation Explored

Edited from BBC News, 22 December 2004

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 irrigation systems.

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 which 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.

Bleak valleys

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.

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.

Evolving complexity

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 sea.

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 which 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.



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