The Second Oldest Civilization in the Entirety of Human History that Developed in… Peru?

The Norte Chico, c. 3500 BC: Read time - 6 minutes
Caral-Supe

What’s up it’s The History Buffs😎. Check out our sources, timeline of events, and defined terms at the bottom. Enjoy‼️

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. 

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

These places are (disputably):

  • Egypt (Ancient Egypt)

  • Mesopotamia (Sumer)

  • Peru (Keep reading)

  • Mesoamerica (Olmecs)

  • India (Indus Valley Civilization)

  • China (Ancient China)

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: Considered the “first” civilization. Formed in Mesopotamia around 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 may have been in the “New World.”

Norte Chico: Also known as the Caral-Supe civilization. An ancient civilization located along four narrow river valleys that run from the Andes Mountains to the Peruvian coast. The oldest urban complex dates back to 3500 BC.

Norte Chico Meme

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 a river. At the time, the ruins looked like mounds of sand, some 15 feet tall.

Pan-American Highway: A highway that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of South America. It is over 19,000 miles long. There is a small 66 mile break in the Darien Gap. 

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.

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

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

That complex was named Huaricanga and 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
A map of the Norte Chico sites found in Peru.

The largest architectural accomplishment of the Norte Chico was the main temple complex in Caral. It sat at 490 feet long, 360 feet wide and 92 feet 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.

The two temple complexes found in Caral

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.

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

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. It’s not somewhere where you’d a expect a civilization to form. The area receives very little rainfall and pretty much nothing grows outside of four narrow river valleys. 

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

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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.

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 an Asia without rice. It yields more calories per acre than any other staple crop.

This led researchers, including Haas and Creamer to believe that the Norte Chico primarily subsisted off of seafood instead of land-based agriculture. This is called the MFAC (Marine Foundations for Andean Civilization) Hypothesis.

MFAC Hypothesis: A hypothesis that states that early Andean civilizations subsisted off seafood and not land based agriculture. It is still debated to this day.

This has baffled researchers and historians alike. The start of every other civilization was built around land-based agriculture. Sure the Peruvian coast is the richest in the world in terms of sea life, but even then is it possible to sustain a large population without farming for food?

You see, the Norte Chico did make use of agriculture. Ruth Shady found domesticated lima beans, squash, and gourds, but something else was found… cotton. And a lot of it.

It seems like that the Norte Chico primarily used agriculture to grow cotton.

Mounds of textiles were found at the archaeological sites. The cotton was often used to make nets and other fishing material.

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

Outside the practical uses of cotton, it was certainly used as a sign of wealth and prestige

It’s difficult to tell how much the Norte Chico relied on seafood and exactly how much of their agricultural production was dedicated to cotton. Ruth Shady claims that the Norte Chico relied on land-based agriculture for subsistence much more, citing more recent discoveries that show maize may have been more abundant than previously thought.

At this point you may have realized, who the hell knows?

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

*The Inca destroyed evidence of civilizations before them. They would take apart abandoned cities and use them in their own construction projects. This was to destroy past cultural identities to prevent rebellion. The Spanish destroyed native history because uh you know, Jesus.

It doesn’t help that Peru has struggled with it’s own internal problems 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 mighty 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.

Beefing over fish Pt. 2

You ready for some drama, because I got some drama.

When I said Haas and Creamer had beef with Ruth Shady, they had some real beef.

Basically, both parties 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, Haas and Creamer were found not guilty and the lawsuit was dropped. 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.

~4500 BC: Sumer is formed.

~3500 BC: Huaricanga is built.

~2600 BC: Caral is built.

2550 – 2490 BC: The Egyptian Pyramids are 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 join Shady in her research.

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 inland along the Supe River. It contains the largest Norte Chico temple found and was home to over 3,000 inhabitants.

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

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

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

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

MFAC Hypothesis: A hypothesis that states that early Andean civilizations subsisted off seafood and not land based agriculture. It is still debated to this day.

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. An ancient civilization located along four narrow river valleys that run from the Andes Mountains to the Peruvian coast. The oldest urban complex dates back to 3500 BC.

Pan-American Highway: A highway that runs from northern Alaska to the southern tip of South America. It is over 19,000 miles long. There is a small 66 mile break in the Darien Gap. 

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

Sumer: Considered the “first” civilization. Formed in Mesopotamia around 4500 BC.

Sources:

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, 2006

Caral: Oldest City in the New World: An interview with Dr. Ruth Shady.  Link.

Refining the Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization: How Plant Fiber Technology Drove Social Complexity During the Preceramic Period. Link.

During the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico Region in Peru. Link.

Image credits:

Courtesy of https://pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2015/12/06/role-modeling-sustainable-living-through-the-ancient-city-of-caral-supe/

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aspero.jpg by Dravinia under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_culture_map.svg by Noahedits, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChinchorroMummiesSanMiguelDeAzapa.jpg by Heretiq under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

 

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