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Norte Chico Culture of Peru

Ancient Anomaly of Peru

In the late 1990's, an unusually ancient civilization was discovered by Peruvian archaeologists in the north-central coastal area of Peru. Led by Ruth Shady Solis, the team uncovered the monumental architecture and remains of a society that existed more than 6000 years ago, an age far older thought possible for such complex societies to exist in the Americas.

Initially the Norte Chico sites were identified in 1905, but were quickly forgotten due to the lack of ceramic or gold materials at the sites that so many early 20th century explorers coveted most.

Relatively little is known about the site, as almost no physical remains other than the gigantic earthen structures and buildings the Norte Chico left behind, can be studied. Some 13 carbon datable items have been found at over 30 sites dotting the coast and further inland. Of 95 samples taken, 10 revealed very old dates, going back to 9210 BC, and others up to 3700 BC of sticks believed associated with the monumental construction projects.

Civilization that thrived without Agriculture

Supposedly, according to scientists, the population density was enormous, despite the relatively few artifacts found at the site and lack of agriculture. Although the Norte Chico did not cultivate cereals for food, the population exceeded that of ancient China at the time and built giant ceremonial complexes, whose function still is not known, such as the Piramide Mayor, over 160 m by 150 m and 18 meters high.

The Norte Chico diet apparently relied almost all on seafood.

The discovery is a significant breakthrough in the study of how early civilization arose around the world. Unlike any other sites studied globally, scholars had long believed that the cultivation and widespread use of agriculture, specifically cereals, was solely responsible for the proliferation and development of complex societies. The evidence at Norte Chico has shattered this idea. This could potentially push back the birth of civilization by many thousands of years.

Textile Manufacturers and Cotton Industry

What is evident at the largest site, Caral Supe, is the commercial manufacture of textiles from cotton. Irrigation canals surround the site, and stone warehouses have been found at Upaca, suggesting a large trade network and organized industrial complex. Cotton in addition, is believed to have provided the material to weave nets for the many fishers along the coastal sites to catch the main staple of the Norte Chico diet.

Caral Supe (Largest Norte Chico Site)

Animal remains found at the Norte Chico settlements are almost exclusively marine, including, sea clams, mussels, sardines, and anchovies. While fish provided the mainstay for the society's base, it is believed that the regional importance of locally grown cotton gave rise to an elite due to the manufacture and trade value of clothing, adornments, bags, and wraps.

The absence of battlements, walls or defensive structures suggests that the society was largely peaceful, and did not grow progressively more urban out of a need for defense or competition for local resources, as is more the case in places such as ancient Sumer and Mesopotamia.

No Pottery or Visual Arts

Oddly enough, another sign usually associated with the rise of urban centers and civilizations, ceramics and pottery, is completely absent from Norte Chico sites. A gourd was found that featured the famous staff god of later Andean and pre Columbian cultures, but almost no signs of art work are present at any of the Norte Chico settlements.

Caral Supe Amphitheater

The monuments are the most noticeable remains of the culture. Over seven terraced pyramids dot the region reaching sizes as large as 100,000 cubic meters.

The largest site, Caral Supe, covers an area of over 650 square kilometers, lined with plazas, amphitheaters, and concentrated residential areas. Most of the monumental architecture was constructed using stone filled bags, which were dropped into trenches behind retaining walls, level by level.

Archaeologists surmise that armies of workers were motivated with dried sardines as payment.

Civilization Based on Peaceful Spiritual Community

Although visual arts are absent at the sites, the Norte Chico appear to have had practiced music; over 32 carved pelican and condor bone flutes were found.

The later recording device of the pre Columbian cultures, the Quipu, was also found, a device which contained a series of knotted strings, probably used in recording trade documentation or even written language. Hallucinogenic plants from the Amazon indicate the rule of elite shamans, and the popularity of spiritual ideas rather than agriculture or defense, being the primary motivation behind the formation of the urban communities of the Norte Chico.

Modern Peruvian Shaman

It may also be possible that fish farms may have been used by the Norte Chico to sustain the large populations necessary to construct the pyramid structures, as no other major crops, such as maize, the staple crop of mesoamerican cultures in later centuries, are buried within the sites.

Mysterious Decline

An insufficient amount of evidence at Norte Chico sites reveals very little about how the culture declined. Given the lack of remains, many conclude that the society simply moved to other more habitable regions as irrigation necessary for cotton cultivation lost important water sources from the mountains with the increasing aridity in the region.

New Discovery at Sechin Alto

Only a few hours drive away from Caral Supe, another site, possibly related to Norte Chico, was also built around the same time over 6000 years ago. The Sechin Bajo structure, is part of a series of pre incan ruins called the Sechin Alto Complex.

Sechin Bajo Plaza

The building consists of a sunken plaza, which is dated to around 3500BC. And archaeologists at the site believe older constructions exist below what has already been uncovered as well. In fact, up to five to six deeper plaza layers is thought to lie underground, which scientists believe periodically became rebuilt every 100 to 300 years.

Due to the very high aridity of the high Andes desert air, structures in the area are well preserved, but tomb robbers in the country is a widespread problem.

Countless sites exist throughout the region, but archaeologists believe that many are lost to vandalism. The true extent and age of the once great civilizations that lived here perhaps may never be known.


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