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Caral: The earliest civilization in the Americas

  • Embassy of Peru 1700 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest Washington, DC, 20036 United States (map)
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Caral is not only a city but also the name of an entire civilization of at least 25 sites centered on the Supe Valley in Peru.The Caral Civilization is considered one of the six “cradles of civilization”, joining Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India and Mesoamerica. Having begun about 5000 years ago, it is now recognized as the wellspring of South American societies.

The individual sites developed a symbiotic relationship where the inland farmers provided the fishing communities with gourds, beans, sweet potatoes, squash, all sorts of foodstuffs. But perhaps their greatest contribution was cotton for fishing nets. In return, the fishing communities provided the protein of the sea, especially anchovies, clams and mussels. But the trade did not stop with the Supe Valley. The trading footprint of Caral extended far north and south and east, to present- day Ecuador and northern Chile and to the Andean highlands and the Andean jungle.

“…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” might not be the way to consider Caral. Yes, there were great class distinctions and resources were allocated unequally. But no sign of warfare has been found. The society clearly had a social, religious and political structure and also specialists in architecture, gastronomy, water management, agriculture, and fishing. Flutes and other instruments provided music and the residue of burnt plants with hallucinatory properties have been found with the inhalers that show their application.

The technological sophistication of the Caral Society was wide ranging. They developed construction techniques that alleviated the risks from earthquakes, techniques that receive a second look today. They also applied the principles of fluid dynamics to their structures, even taking advantage of the Venturi Effect.

We are beginning to see the influence of Caral in later societies. Geoglyphs at Caral predate the famous Nasca Lines. The earliest quipu, the “talking strings” with which the Incas and other societies communicated, was found at Caral. Construction techniques used much later by the Incas were first used in Caral. Even a “pre-proto Quechua” may have first taken root in the Supe Valley. And this is only the first 25 years of understanding.

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