A complex of American pyramids that may be older than the pyramids of Egypt stands on a high, dry terrace overlooking a lush river valley in the Andes Mountains of Peru. These structures are remnants of the ancient city of Caral, which some have called the oldest society in the Americas.
According to groundbreaking research published in Science back in 2001, Caral was founded around 5,000 years ago. That origin date places it before the Egyptian pyramids in Africa and roughly 4,000 years before the Incan Empire rose to power on the South American continent. That history, and the sheer scope of the site, prompted UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural.
Caral sits in the Supe Valley, a region of Peru’s high desert nestled between the rainforest, mountains and the Pacific coast. The valley is brimming with ancient monumental architecture. And in the decades since Caral first made headlines, archaeologists working in the region have turned up about 18 nearby cities, some of which may be even older.
Taken together, these ancient people represent a complex culture now called Norte Chico. These people lived at a time when cities were on Earth, and perhaps non-existent elsewhere in the so-called New World. Even more incredible is that the civilization pre-dated the invention of ceramic pottery by some six centuries, yet they could master the technological prowess required to build monumental pyramids.
Much remains a mystery about this culture, but if archaeologists can unlock the secrets of Caral and its ancient neighbours, they may be able to understand the origins of Andean civilizations — and the emergence of the first American cities.
The Pyramids of Caral
A German archaeologist named Max Uhle first stumbled across Caral in 1905 during a wide-ranging study of ancient Peruvian cities and cemeteries. The site piqued his interest, but Uhle didn’t realize the large hills in front of him were actually pyramids. Archaeologists only made that discovery in the 1970s. And even then, it took another two decades before Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady kicked off systematic excavations of the region.
In 1993, working on weekends with the help of her students, Shady began a two-year survey of the Supe Valley that would ultimately yield a staggering 18 distinct settlements. No one knew how old they were, but the cities’ similarities and more primitive technologies implied a single, ancient culture that predated all others in the region.
By 1996, Shady’s work attracted a small fund from the National Geographic Society, which was enough to launch her Caral Archaeological Project working at the heart of the main city itself.
And when her team’s initial results were published in 2001, their study set the narrative for Caral as we still appreciate it today. The global press heralded it as the first city in the Americas. “Caral … was a thriving metropolis as Egypt’s great pyramids were being built,” Smithsonian Magazine reported. The BBC said the find offered hope to a century-long archaeological search for a “mother city” — a culture’s true first transition from tribal family units into urban life. Such a discovery could help explain why humanity made the leap.