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 governments in ancient times formed – especially when there was no government to copy? One day someone was like “hey bros, let’s move these big rocks to build a giant ass pyramid.” Of course that’s not actually how it happened, but it’s fun to think about. 

Only a select few civilizations formed independently. These special places are known as the “cradles of civilization.” Everywhere else, government was copied. These places are (disputably):

  • Egypt

  • Mesopotamia

  • Peru

  • Mesoamerica

  • India

  • China

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

Now rank these by what you think is the oldest. If you paid attention in school, you know that Sumer was the first civilization in Mesopotamia. As for second place, it depends on who you ask, but many would say the Norte Chico in Peru. That’s right, the second oldest civilization in the entirety of human history could have been in the “New World.”

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.

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
Yes I know it’s because there’s more information about the others, but I still find it funny

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 shitposting on 4chan than he was to the construction of this city state in Peru.

Desert civilizations seem to have a thing for mummies

Before we get to the Norte Chico let’s start with their ancestors – the Chinchorro Culture. The Chinchorro inhabited the coast of 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. Other than that though, the land was barren. It’s not somewhere where you would expect the second civilization in all of human history to develop.

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 the mummies. Some of the mummies date back to 5000 BC – the oldest Egyptian mummy dates back to 3000 BC. 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 early mummies were children who suffered from anemia. Child mortality was likely high and parents couldn’t let go of their children. I feel like looking at your mummified child everyday is counter-intuitive in that regard, but I guess whatever floats your boat.

Chinchorro mummies
Actual Chinchorro mummy displayed

This tradition could have been sustained all the way up to the Inca until their fall 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. 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 wild that a practice can endure for over 6000 years in some (weird) form or fashion.

Inca: A civilization in Peru that reigned from 1438-1572.

*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 these mounds when they visited in 1941. Thirty years later they returned and realized that they were actually the ruins of a past civilization.

These ruins became known as Aspero and flipped our understanding of the Americas upside down. I can’t include too many pictures because of copyright issues, but go check it out for yourself. It’s wild.

Aspero: A cluster of mounds found at the mouth of the Supe River. Ended up actually being the ruins of the Norte Chico.

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

More than 100 different sites, including more than 25 cities, were found in the region. The oldest city discovered so far – Huaricanga (3500 BC), had a temple that was 150 feet long and 60 feet high, undoubtedly one of the biggest buildings in the world at the time.  

You should also think of the Norte Chico not as a single monolith like Rome, but more like Ancient Greece – a culture (the Chinchorro) spread out among several city states. Keep in mind that these cities didn’t all exist at the same time. With the exception of a few, most date back between 3200-2500 BC. Some of the oldest being:

  • Huaricanga in 3500 BC
  • Cabalette in 3100 BC
  • Porvenir and Upaca in 2700 BC
  • Caral in 2600 BC 
A map of the Norte Chico sites found in Peru.

There was also this cute little shit that was engraved in a gourd between 2280-2180 BC. This engraving is reminiscent of the Staff God which was worshiped by Peruvian civilizations until the Spanish conquest of the Inca in 1578 AD  – another (possible) example of the enduring Norte Chico culture. 

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

The engraving in the gourd. May have been the earliest version of the Staff God.

Norte Chico society was most likely centered around religion. Some 32 flutes were discovered as well as huge piles of fish bones which indicate that music and feasts were more than likely incorporated in religious ceremonies. Much of the ruins, especially the larger structures, were most likely religious temples. Most information that may have been around was either destroyed by the Spanish or the Inca.

*In an attempt to erase any evidence of powerful civilizations before them, the Inca destroyed many texts or ruins of past civilizations. Of course the Spanish too destroyed any historical records they found. This doesn’t mean there was any evidence, but any that may have existed was most likely destroyed.

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👉The Second Oldest Civilization in Human History Located in… Peru?

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Beefing over fish

Before we get into this, 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, 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 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 (that we know of). 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.

Caral-Supe meme

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 of Aspero. 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. It was only one of a few places where civilization developed independently.  Everywhere else organization and government was copied. 

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 - Memes - 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.

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 joined Shady in her research.

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

Aspero: A cluster of mounds found at the mouth of the Supe River. Ended up actually being the ruins of the Norte Chico.

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.

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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