Until the 1990s, scholars pointed to Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India as areas that first gave rise to civilization – locations where ancient peoples organized societies with class systems, built enduring cities with public sites, cultivated food for large populations, domesticated animals, developed recording systems and appreciated the arts and sciences. In 2001, the Sacred City of Caral-Supe in Peru was added to that elite list when radiocarbon dating confirmed that urban life, complex agriculture and monumental architecture flourished there 5,000 years ago – long before the rise of civilizations in India and Asia and 2,000 years earlier than anywhere in Mesoamerica or Europe.
In recognition of its importance as one of the first civilizations of the world, and the oldest in the Americas, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Caral-Supe as a World Heritage site in 2009. Since then, the Sacred City of Caral has gained growing recognition for its well-preserved site, which features complex and monumental architecture, including six large pyramidal structures.
Goshen College students recently spent a day exploring the site, which is about 125 miles north of Lima, on the desert coast. Caral stil is relatively little known, even within Peru, and well off the tourist trail because of its lack of public accommodations and somewhat remote location, 14 miles inland from the Pan American Highway. To visit, visitors must endure a 40-minute bus or truck ride over a bone-jarring dirt road and then hike nearly a mile to the reception center. And, despite its increasing international profile, tours are offered only in Spanish.
Still, once arriving, visitors are treated to a magnificent sight: 1,547 acres, of great historical and cultural significance, situated on a dry desert terrace overlooking the lush valley of the Supe River. Caral, which once housed about 3,000 people, features stone and earthen platform mounds, sunken circular plazas, pyramids used for religious ceremonies and residential areas.
While the inhabitants of Caral lacked ceramics, and apparently art, they built huge structures, ate a varied diet, developed the use of textiles and built water supply, irrigation and drainage systems. Evidence was found indicating that the people traded widely with inhabitants of the coast, mountains and jungle. Although two cases of human sacrifice were uncovered, scientists have found no evidence that Caral had a military culture or that its people conquered others.
Instead, experts believe the people of Caral were peaceful and spent considerable time studying the heavens, practicing their religion and playing musical instruments; archaeologists found 37 cornets made of deer and llama bones and 33 flutes made of condor and pelican bones. Among important artifacts found was a quipu, a record-keeping system involving the use of knots tied in rope, that later was used by other Andean civilizations, including the Inca.
After a quick lunch, Goshen students spent several hours strolling through Caral with a tour guide. While it was a busy morning at Caral, by mid-afternoon the crowds had thinned and the students got to experience the peace and solitude that permeates the site. A number of students remarked that it was awe-inspiring to visit a place where civilization thrived at a time the great pyramids in Egypt were just being built.
More than 100 people toil daily at Caral, meticulously removing centuries of accumulated soil and restoring stone structures, ensuring that future visitors will be able to see even more and learn the latest discoveries about a mysterious people whose story is still unfolding, layer by layer and year by year.