CARAL, the oldest city in America

Ancient Egypt was not the first place on earth to build a pyramid. More than 5,000 years ago, an ancient civilization in Peru built comparable ones, at least 500 years before those of Giza.

Caral is an archaeological site, a remnant of the ancient civilization of the same name, located on the Peruvian coast, in the Supe Valley, 180 km north of Lima. This ancient civilization that existed in this place more than 5,000 years ago is considered the oldest on the American continent (it would be the second oldest in the world after that of Sumer in Mesopotamia). So far, archaeologists have not found any other site in America that has ruins of cities with such ancient temples, monuments and pyramids.

Unlike other ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sumer, China, etc.), that of Caral has the characteristic of having been particularly isolated. But that did not prevent it from experiencing exceptional development, anticipating by more than 1,500 years the other cultures that subsequently emerged in Mesoamerica. And Caral is not only the oldest civilization in the Americas, the city has some of the oldest pyramids in the world.


The construction of the pyramids of Caral makes this civilization a mystery

Archaeologists have found different pyramids of different sizes in Caral. There are seven large ones surrounded by several smaller structures, totaling 32 buildings. The builders of the time organized the city into two zones: north and south. It is in the upper zone that we find the six largest pyramids and an amphitheater.

The main, stepped pyramid, also known as the “Great Pyramid”, is 155 meters long, 110 meters wide and 28 meters high. It is accompanied in front of its central staircase by a circular structure 9 meters wide. Each pyramid of Caral had a specific role with different uses in the social and religious organization of the inhabitants.

Before any other civilization in America, the development of the populations of this region of north-central Peru was precocious. Between 3000 and 2500 BC, the pyramidal buildings of Caral were already under construction and renovation, and periodic congregations stood in its plazas for economic, social and religious purposes.

CARAL, the oldest city in America

Cross-functional land and resource management

In the Supe Basin, and in the areas under its influence, a complementary economy between fishing and agriculture, articulated by trade, supported the social system, fostered labor specialization, interregional interaction, wealth accumulation and development. The exchange of dried anchovies and shellfish for agricultural, textile or food products, initiated a commercial chain which, although it extended to other regions, enriched the coastal towns.

The inhabitants of Supe lived in colonies, of various extension and complexity, distributed in the valley; in each of them they built architectural, residential and public structures. Some settlements contain impressive monumental buildings, such as at Caral which had eight population centers, including the largest and most complex city at the time, carefully planned with pyramidal buildings, large squares and various residential groups.

CARAL, the oldest city in America

Contemporaries periodically participated in collective activities of production, which combined with others, social, economic and religious. Thus, the fabric of the social structure was maintained and reinforced in periodic events: fairs or in a festive setting, ceremonies, rites…

Religion was the instrument used by the ruling class to strengthen cultural identity and social cohesion. Through religion, the authorities simultaneously exercised control, justified their privileges, maintained order and guaranteed the reproduction of the social system.

Information was recorded using ropes and knots. With the civilization of Caral, began the use of the “quipu” which lasted until the Inca Empire, more than four thousand years later. Finally, the measurement of the movement of the stars was represented in the construction of large geoglyphs and alignments of stones, which preceded the paths of the Pampa de Nasca by more than three thousand years.

CARAL, the oldest city in America
© Alison Ruth Hughes (CC)

Caral, world heritage by UNESCO, now has a virtual museum!

The entrance to the virtual museum, which has 10 thematic rooms, evokes a spiral path that symbolizes a journey through time to the origins of civilization, knowledge and ancestral wisdom. Here you can find infographics, photos, illustrations, recreations, videos, audios and slideshows.

According to Yoshio Cano, architect in charge of Caral’s museography, “The virtual museum is a complement to the on-site visit to the Sacred City where one can appreciate the monumentality of Caral. With the virtual museum, you have an aerial view and 3D reconstructions of what this city was like”.