This is an undated view of the Caral, Peru platform mounds, or pyramids with the Supe River in the background. A Peruvian complex of towering pyramids, irrigation canals and apartment-like buildings may have been the Americas' first urban center, built by a civilization that thrived more than 4,000 years ago. (AP Photo/Jonathan Haas, Field Museum)


Peru Site Birthplace of Civilization in Americas

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At the same time as ancient Egyptians were building their pyramids, people along the Peruvian coast were erecting massive stone structures in the first major city in the Americas 4,600 years ago, archeologists said on Thursday.

A husband-and-wife team from Illinois and a colleague in Lima say Caral, located in the Supe River valley of central Peru, may represent the birthplace of civilization in the Americas. The site was first discovered in 1905 but remained unexplored. Its significance was unknown until new radiocarbon dating revealed its stunning antiquity.

The researchers found the site dated back to 2627 BC. That meant the emergence of urban life and monumental architecture in the New World took place nearly 800 years earlier than experts previously had thought.

Nestled on a parched desert terrace above a green valley floor, Caral is dominated by a central zone with six large platform mounds built from quarried stone and river cobbles set around a huge public plaza area. The largest structure soars 60 feet high and measures 450 feet by 500 feet at the base.

``I think this is really cool stuff. This is a wonderful site, one of the most exciting things I can think of,'' said Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Haas, his wife Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University, and Ruth Shady Solis of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima studied the site. The findings appear in the journal Science.


One Of The Great Ancient Civilizations

Caral was flourishing at the same time as the pyramids were going up in Old Kingdom Egypt and early complex civilizations were percolating in Mesopotamia, China and perhaps India.

``You probably had some of the biggest structures in the world outside of Egypt in the Supe valley,'' Haas said.

The researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of reed fibers from woven bags found at Caral that workers had used to haul stones for the buildings and actually left them inside the enormous structures. Because the reeds live for only one year, the dates were extremely specific.

Caral predated by thousands of years some of the great New World civilizations -- the Incas in the 15th century AD in Peru, the Mayans in the first millennium AD in Central America and the Aztecs in the 15th century AD in Mexico.

Caral is located 120 miles north of Lima 14 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. ``The real irony is that the peak of civilization in this area happened before 2000 BC. Nothing much has happened in this valley since,'' Creamer said.


``A Big Gorilla''

Other villages in Peru were occupied before 2600 BC. Some featured small-scale public buildings. But all of the sites in the Americas occupied in the third millennium BC are dwarfed by the 200-acre size of Caral and its monuments.

``At 2600 BC, you have Caral dominating the landscape like a big gorilla,'' Haas said.

The site, still only partially excavated, and others in the Supe valley point to a remarkably advanced civilization for the time period, despite the fact that pottery had not yet been developed and no grains were grown for food.

All six major structures at Caral were built in just one or two phases, pointing to the existence of complex planning, centralized decision-making and the use of large numbers of workers. The structures were crowned by ceremonial buildings that may have served as symbols of centralized religion.

Caral also boasts eight sectors of modest homes and grand stone-walled residences. The varied styles and quality of Caral's housing point to a richly stratified society, the researchers said. Three sunken circular plazas at the site testify to the emergence of a well-organized religion with open, public ceremonies, the researchers added.

How many people lived there is a mystery. ``Whether we're talking about 1,000, 10,000 or 50,000, I honestly don't know,'' Haas said, but the scale of the structures suggests ``there were a heck of a lot of people involved in building them.''