by Dra. Ruth Shady
Ruth Martha Shady Solís is a Peruvian anthropologist and archaeologist. She is also the founder and director of the archaeological project at Caral.Throughout her career, she has directed many different projects of archeological investigation on the coast, the highlands and the rain forests of Peru, placing emphasis on the study of the development of the complex socio-political organizations.She was director of the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Antropología del Perú (National museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Peru), and director of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology of National University of San Marcos. She has worked at the Caral site from 1994 onwards and is credited with the discovery of the first known civilization of Peru; Shady has named the civilization after Caral, while the term Norte Chico has been adopted in English.
Dr. Shady holds the offices of President of ICOMOS-PERU, principal professor and co-ordinator of the master of archeology graduate program faculty of social sciences of the UNMSM and director of the special archeological project Caral-Supe/INC.
Caral was inhabited between roughly 2600 BC and 2000 BC, enclosing an area of 66 hectares. Caral was described by its excavators as the oldest urban center in the Americas, a claim that was later challenged as other ancient sites were found nearby. Accommodating more than 3,000 inhabitants, it is the best studied and one of the largest Norte Chico sites known.
The Caral pyramids in the arid Supe Valley, some 20 km from the Pacific coast.
Paul Kosok discovered Caral (Chupacigarro Grande) in 1948, but it received little attention until recently because it appeared to lack many typical artifacts that were sought at archeological sites throughout the Andes at the time. Archaeologist Ruth Shady further explored the 5,000 year-old city of pyramids in the Peruvian desert, with its elaborate complex of temples, an amphitheater and ordinary houses. The urban complex is spread out over 150 acres (607,000 m²) and contains plazas and residential buildings. Caral was a thriving metropolis at roughly the same time that Egypt's great pyramids were being built.
The main pyramid (Spanish: Pirámide Mayor) covers an area nearly the size of four football fields and is 60 feet (18 m) tall. Caral is the largest recorded site in the Andean region with dates older than 2000 BCE and appears to be the model for the urban design adopted by Andean civilizations that rose and fell over the span of four millennia. It is believed that Caral may answer questions about the origins of Andean civilizations and the development of the first cities.
Among the artifacts found at Caral are a knotted textile piece that the excavators have labeled a quipu. They argue that the artifact is evidence that the quipu record keeping system, a method involving knots tied in rope that was brought to perfection by the Inca, was older than any archaeologist had previously guessed. However, the artifact is orders of magnitude simpler than later Inca quipu, and it is thus doubtful that it was produced as part of a robust accounting system. Indeed, many archaeologists have actually questioned whether or not it is a recording device at all.
No trace of warfare has been found at Caral; no battlements, no weapons, no mutilated bodies. Shady's findings suggest it was a gentle society, built on commerce and pleasure. In one of the pyramids, they uncovered 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones and 37 cornets of deer and llama bones. One find revealed the remains of a baby, wrapped and buried with a necklace made of stone beads.
They also found evidence of drug use and possibly aphrodisiacs. One theory suggests that the coca they found may be evidence that Caral sprung up as an organized coca growing and distribution centre.
Caral spawns 19 other pyramid complexes scattered across the 35 square mile (80 km²) area of the Supe Valley. The find of the quipu indicates that the later Inca civilization preserved some cultural continuity from the Caral civilization. The date of 2627 BCE is based on carbon dating reed and woven carrying bags that were found in situ. These bags were used to carry the stones that were used for the construction of the pyramids. The material is an excellent candidate for dating, thus allowing for a high precision. The site may date even earlier as samples from the oldest parts of the excavation have yet to be dated. The town had a population of approximately 3000 people. But there are 19 other sites in the area (posted at Caral), allowing for a possible total population of 20,000 people for the Supe valley. All of these sites in the Supe valley share similarities with Caral. They had small platforms or stone circles. Shady (2001) believes that Caral was the focus of this civilization, which itself was part of an even vaster complex, trading with the coastal communities and the regions further inland – as far as the Amazon, if the depiction of monkeys is any indication.