The second oldest Civilization in Human History located in… Peru?

Caral-Supe
The Norte Chico: C. 3500 BC: Read time - 6 minutes 22 seconds

The New World is the new Old World

Isn’t it kind of weird how civilizations in the beginning of human history formed?

One day someone was like “hey bros, let’s move these big rocks to build a giant ass pyramid.”  

It’s a weird thought, but this had to have happened somewhere. Researchers and historians call these special places the “cradles of civilization.” Apart from these places, government and civilization as we know it it were copied. 

These places are (disputably):

  • Egypt

  • Mesopotamia

  • Peru

  • Mesoamerica

  • India

  • China

Cradle of civilization: A place where a civilization independently formed.

Now rank these places by what you think is the oldest.

If you said Sumer in Mesopotamia, good job you paid attention in school😎🥇

Sumer: The earliest known civilization formed in Mesopotamia. C. 4500 BC

Mesopotamia: Refers to the fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Home to Sumer, considered the first civilization.

As for second place, it depends on who you ask, but many would say the Norte Chico in modern day Peru. That’s right, the second oldest civilization in the entirety of human history could have been in the “New World.”

Norte Chico: Also known as the Caral-Supe civilization. A series of cities located along three major river systems from the Andes Mountains to the Peruvian coast. The oldest urban complex dates back to 3500 BC.

Norte Chico Meme

As early as 3,500 BC – a thousand years before the construction of the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza, the Norte Chico constructed their first urban complex. 

Alexander the Great, a great conqueror that the likes of Julius Caesar looked up to, founded the Macedonian Empire around 330 BC. He was more than a 1,000 years closer to shit posting on social media than he was to the construction of this complex in Peru.

Desert civilizations seem to have a thing for mummies

Before we get to the Norte Chico let’s start with the first culture of Peru – the Chinchorro Culture. The Chinchorro inhabited the coast of modern day northern Chile and southern Peru, along the arid Atacama Desert as early as 7000 BC. 

Similar to the Nile River in the Sahara Desert, some 50 rivers run down from the Andes Mountains through the Atacama, providing fertile land for human settlement.

Chinchorro Culture: A preceramic culture that existed on the coast of Peru and Northern Chile. Known for their mummification and seafood based diet.

Atacama Desert: A desert plateau covering a strip of land west of the Andes Mountains. It is the driest non polar desert in the world.

Andes Mountains: The longest above-water mountain range in the world. Runs from Columbia to southern Chile.

Map of where Chinchorro archaeological sites were found

The coolest thing about these people were their mummies. The oldest mummies found date back to 5000 BC. That’s 2000 years older than the oldest Egyptian mummy. The mummies were wrapped and repainted in the likeness of the deceased suggesting that these mummies may have been displayed for the living to see.

Many of the mummies were children who suffered from anemia. Child mortality was high and you could speculate that parents couldn’t let go of their children. I feel like looking at your mummified child everyday is counter-intuitive in that regard, but whatever floats your boat.

Chinchorro mummies
Actual Chinchorro mummy displayed

This tradition was sustained all the way up until the Inca fell to the Spanish in 1572. In the Incan Civil War, opposing factions used the mummified bodies of past leaders as signs of legitimacy for the throne. The Inca believed that these mummies were still alive in some way. 

Inca: A civilization in Peru that reigned from 1438-1572. At its territorial height, it was the biggest empire in the entire world.

Inca civil war: A civil war that saw two brothers go to war over the succession of the throne between 1529 and 1532 AD. Over 100,000 would die. Right after this the Spanish and friends would take advantage of the situation and conquer the Inca.

In one instance, there was a new Incan king who just ascended the throne. He had his father (who just died and was mummified) marry his aunt (yes, who was his father’s sister and still alive) in some weird Alabama, necrophiliac-type wedding to legitimize his ascension to the throne. 

There’s obviously more to the story here, but the point is that it’s crazy that a practice can endure for over 6000 years in some (weird) form or fashion.

*The Incan royalty often married their siblings. This wasn’t uncommon around the world as Egyptian and European royalty pretty much did the same.

Some of the oldest Chinchorro mummies found. Look up more pictures, they are SCARY.

Civilization time😎

It wasn’t until recently that the Norte Chico ruins were found. The Pan-American highway ran through the ruins which sat at the mouth of the Supe River. At the time, the ruins looked like mounds of sand, some 15 feet tall.

That’s how two researchers described them when they visited in 1941. Thirty years later they returned and realized that they were actually the ruins of a past civilization.

Since the discovery over 100 sites and more than 25 cites have been found. It flipped our entire understanding of the Americas upside down.

A 3D rendering of what a Norte Chico temple in Caral (more on Caral later)

Before the discovery, it was thought that the Chavín were the first civilization to inhabit Peru. The Chavín culture appeared only about ‼️2600 YEARS‼️ after the oldest Norte Chico complex (found so far).

Chavín Culture: A civilization that dominated modern day Peru between 900 to 300 BC.

That complex was named Huaricanga which was built sometime around 3500 BC. It contained a temple that was 150 feet long and 60 feet high, undoubtedly one of the biggest structures in the world at the time. 

Huricanga: The oldest of the Norte Chico sites found that dates back to 3500 BC. It sits inland along the Fortieza River.

Here are the oldest sites found so far: 

  • Huaricanga in 3500 BC
  • Cabalette in 3100 BC
  • Porvenir and Upaca in 2700 BC
  • Caral in 2600 BC
The largest architectural accomplishment of the Norte Chico was the main temple complex in Caral. It sat at 50 meters (490 ft) long, 110 meters (360 ft) wide and 28 meters (92 ft) high. The only larger structures on the planet would be the pyramids in Egypt.

Caral: A Norte Chico city that sat inland along the Supe River. It contains the largest Norte Chico temple found and was home to over 3,000 inhabitants.

A map of the Norte Chico sites found in Peru.

Okay that’s enough of big ancient buildings. Let’s talk about CULTURE! A culture that would influence Andean civilizations for thousands of years.

Let’s start with this cute little shit:

 

This was engraved in a gourd between 2280 – 2180 BC. This engraving is reminiscent of the Staff God which was worshipped by Peruvian civilizations until the Spanish conquest of the Inca in 1572 AD.

Staff God: A deity worshiped by Andean civilizations for thousands of years. Many variations exist.

As evidenced by the cute little deity and the humongous temples, religion played a big role in Norte Chico culture. Some 32 flutes were discovered as well as huge piles of fish bones which indicate that music and feasts were a part of religious ceremonies. 

The Norte Chico also seemed to be a peaceful folk. Things liked burned buildings, mutilated bodies, or weapons were noticeably absent from archaeological digs.

You should also think of the Norte Chico not as a single monolith like Rome, but more like Ancient Greece – a culture spread out among several city-states. These cities also didn’t all exist at the same time but were rather built over the course of centuries. 

Another thing to note is that the littoral (coast) of Peru where the Norte Chico developed sucks ass. The area receives very little rainfall and pretty much nothing grows outside of the four narrow river valleys. It’s not where you’d expect a civilization to develop, especially in its own.

If the area was a crappy place for agriculture, what exactly sustained the population?

Beefing over fish

Now we’re going to get into the less sexy part of the Norte Chico – fish vs land based agriculture.

Let’s note who our two main sources are. There is Ruth Shady, a Peruvian professor, and the American couple of Winifred Creamer and Jonathan Haas. Let’s say that the two parties have some beef over fish, but more on that later. 

Haas and Creamer claim that the majority of the Norte Chico’s diet came from seafood. DNA analysis from human remains show that 90% of the Norte Chico’s protein came from seafood. 

This percentage was consistent throughout the centuries. Piles of seafood remains and fishing equipment are abundant at the ruins and any sign of maize, the staple food of the Americas, was far and few between. 

*Maize dominated the Americas as the main staple food. Like I can’t stress how important it was. Imagine a Europe without wheat or a China without rice. It yields more calories per acre than any other staple crop.

This has baffled researchers and historians alike. How the hell does a civilization develop without agriculture? Sure the Peruvian coast is the richest in the world in terms of sealife, but even then is it possible to sustain a large population without farming for food?

This is called the MFAC (Marine Foundations for Andean Civilization) hypothesis. Sorry to get all speculative like r/wallstreetbets, but as mentioned before the Norte Chico didn’t leave any writing behind. Most of what we know is from archeological digs and hypothesizing, but trust me it gets wild.

MFAC Hypothesis: A hypothesis that states that early Andean civilizations subsisted off seafood and not land based agriculture.

The Norte Chico did in fact have agriculture. However instead of food, it was used for cotton. Mounds of textiles were found at these archaeological sites. The cotton was often used to make nets and other fishing material.

Even the city of Caral, which sat 14 miles inland along the Caral River, had huge deposits of anchovy bones. The inhabitants of Caral and other inland cities developed an irrigation system which made the otherwise unfertile lands into a cotton production factory. 

As evidenced by the seafood remains, it’s likely that cotton was traded for seafood. Most certainly cotton and textiles were used as a sign of wealth.

Caral: A Norte Chico city that sat 14 miles inland. Dates back to ~2,600 BC.

While Ruth Shady doesn’t dismiss the importance of seafood, she claims that the Norte Chico depended on land based agriculture much more, citing the presence of gourds, lima beans, and squash in the coastal ruins. 

It seems that in addition to trading cotton, the inland cities also traded these crops. More recent digs actually show that maize may have been more abundant and used as a staple crop, but it’s uncertain how integral it was. As you may have realized at this point – who the hell knows?

A stunning view of the Caral ruins. What the 3D model above is based on.

Hopefully this article becomes obsolete in a few years

The discovery of the Norte Chico is still relatively new and there’s so much more to be found. Peru was home to many of the great civilizations of the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, much of the history that may have been around was destroyed by the Spanish and Inca.

It doesn’t help that Peru is poor and the research of these ancient civilizations was often put on the back burner or ignored entirely. Many of these ancient sites were taken apart and looted by the impoverished locals. 

Luckily we have finally taken notice of ancient American civilizations – it’s the fastest growing field in history. Who knows what other crazy stuff we’re going to find.

Norte Chico meme
Not the only thing that’s rising😏

What is undoubtedly true is that the Norte Chico spread the fruits of civilization, much like Sumer. Without the Norte Chico we may have never seen the complex Chavín civilization or the might Inca Empire. 

Yeah this is just some cool stuff you can impress your Tinder date with, or in my case creep her out with my over the top enthusiasm. 

Anyways, I promised archaeology drama and prepare to be disappointed. Basically, the Peruvian professor Ruth Shady and the married American couple of Haas and Creamer coordinated their exploration of the Norte Chico ruins together. In Haas and Creamer’s research, they rarely mentioned Shady and downplayed her role, which Shady was pissed about. 

There was a lawsuit and a lot of shit talking. Eventually, the lawsuit was dropped and Haas and Creamer were found not guilty. My opinion? I don’t really care lol. I do feel bad for Shady though because she seems like such a nice person, but DAMN academics are a petty lot. Fin!

Timeline - Terms - Sources

~10,000 BC: First archaeological evidence of inhabitants of Peru are discovered.

~7000-1500 BC: Chinchorro culture becomes prevalent.

~5000 BC: The oldest known Chinchorro mummy is wrapped.

~4500 BC: Sumer is formed.

~3500 BC: Huaricanga is built.

~2600 BC: Caral is built.

2280-2180 BC: The (maybe) oldest iteration of the Staff God was created.

1529 and 1532 AD: The Inca Civil War. The Spanish began their conquest right after the war ended.

1572 AD: The Inca fall to the Spanish.

1941: Two researchers find mysterious mounds which were written off as natural formations.

1971: The same two researchers return to the site and realize that the mounds were actually ancient ruins which became known as Aspero.

1994: Ruth Shady Solis begins to explore the inland site of Caral.

1998: Michael Jordan wins his sixth and final NBA championship.

2000: Haas and Creamer join Shady in her research.

Andes Mountains: The longest above-water mountain range in the world. Runs from Columbia to southern Chile.

Atacama Desert: A desert plateau covering a strip of land west of the Andes Mountains. It is the driest non polar desert in the world.

Caral: A Norte Chico city that sat 14 miles inland. Dates back to ~2,600 BC.

Chinchorro Culture: A preceramic culture that existed on the coast of Peru and Northern Chile. Known for their mummification and seafood based diet.

Cradle of civilization: A place where a civilization independently formed.

Inca: A civilization in Peru that reigned from 1438-1572. At its territorial height, it was the biggest empire in the entire world.

Inca civil war: A civil war that saw two brothers go to war over the succession of the throne between 1529 and 1532 AD. Over 100,000 would die. Right after this the Spanish and friends would take advantage of the situation and conquer the Inca.

Mesopotamia: Refers to the fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Home to Sumer, considered the first civilization.

MFAC Theory: A hypothesis that states that early Andean civilizations subsisted off seafood and not land based agriculture.

Norte Chico: Also known as the Caral-Supe civilization. A series of cities located along three major river systems from the Andes Mountains to the Peruvian coast. The oldest urban complex dates back to 3500 BC.

Staff God: A deity worshiped by Andean civilizations for thousands of years. Many variations exist.

Sumer: The earliest known civilization formed in Mesopotamia. C. 4500 BC.

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