April 2002

It’s Official: Caral is Very Old

Ok Caral?

Archeologists are excavating Caral, the earliest known settlement in the Americas.

Lima, Peru – – Archeologists knew they had made a stunning find when they began excavating Caral in 1994. The complexity of the community – – pyramids, an amphitheater and irrigation systems – – along with the lack of ceramics, which didn’t appear until 1800 to 1500 BCE, were early clues. But the rest of the scientific world wasn’t convinced until last July when the results of carbon dating tests placed the settlement at [around] 2627 BCE – – or 1,500 years before any previously known development in the Americas. Located near the Pacific coast, about 90 miles north of Lima, the site is contemporary to the pyramids of Egypt.

Now archeologists here are intensifying their efforts to raise funds for its preservation. At a press conference in February, Ruth Shady, of San Marcos University in Lima, announced that, in addition to the $500,000 allotted by the Peruvian government for its preservation and a pledge made by the telephone company Telefonica del Peru, the site will require funding from other sources. Earlier this year, the World Monuments Fund added Caral to its list of 100 most endangered archeological sites.

Shady has been excavating Caral with colleagues Jonathan Haas of Chicago’s Field Museum and Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University. Remains include six stone platforms, sunken ceremonial plazas, and residential areas, suggesting that about 3,000 people lived there. One intriguing find has been 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones and engraved with figures of birds and monkeys. These were found near the amphitheater, suggesting music performance, says Shady.

Farmers are encroaching on Caral, and local people steal its ancient bricks to build homes, Shady adds, pointing out, however, that looting is less of a problem here than at other Peruvian sites because Caral is pre-ceramic. “The architecture is monumental. We’re fortunate that the state of conservation is reasonably good.”

– -Roger Atwood