While Egyptians were building their pyramids, the Caral-Supe civilization was building the first known city in the Western Hemisphere. Caral is the oldest urban settlement in the Americas, dating back to 3000-1800 BCE.

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UNESCO World Heritage plaque at entrance to Caral.

Once out of Lima, it is a pleasant, 180 kilometer drive north on the modern Pan-American Highway. A big sign marks the turnoff.

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The Pan American Highway, heading north from Lima, with road sign indicating turn to Caral.

Heading east, a reasonably paved road runs through corn, carrot, and pepper fields and ends 23 kilometers later in a large parking lot next to a village. From the car park it is a 1.5 km hike across a river, up a hill, and through a part of Caral that in 2013 is new excavation. To the right the city spreads out for just over kilometer. Parking next to the entrance, which would eliminate this hike, may now be open.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Farm workers bagging corn and loading it onto truck. Horse and cart bring bags from more distant fields.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Corn fields after harvest. The strips that are not burnt have been soaked with water.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Hot pepper fields.

Locals knew about the strange mounds that dotted the landscape but no one ever enquired — until aerial photography in 1994 “discovered” them. A Peruvian archaeologist, Ruth Shady Solis, visited the area and confirmed that the “hills” were pyramids covered with several millennia of sand.

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The Gallery Pyramid on the left, Huanca Pyramid on the right, and the Huanca monolith on the lower left.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

One of the small pyramids at Caral.

After ten years of serious excavation and restoration, Caral opened to the public in 2006 and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site three years later. Excavation and restoration continue.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Long after the Norte Chico civilization disappeared, another civilization, the Chavin, occupied Caral and left its mark.
On the lower wall of the Gallery Pyramid a row of rounded protrusions are visible. These would have been added by the Chavin culture between 900 BCE and 200 CE.

The Pacific coast of South America, from central Ecuador to central Chile, is desert.
Caral’s founders chose a locale on the south shore of the Supe River, which runs from the Andes to the Pacific and has created a wide, lush river valley.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

A thousand years after the Chavin culture vanished, a third culture settled at Caral (1200-1450 CE).
The Chancay people may have used surviving structures at Caral but they also constructed their own buildings between Caral and the Supe River.
The foundations of these structures can be seen in the foreground.

Caral was a non-militarized society and a theocracy that, at its height, had a population of about 3,000. These people had no ceramics and no metal implements; however, simple quipus, the string and knot records that the Incas would perfect, have been found. Fragments of cotton clothing have also been found.

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Three workmen restoring the Gallery pyramid.

Early excavations revealed six pyramids of varying sizes, each with three sets of stairs. Like the Maya a few thousand kilometers north and a thousand years later, Norte Chico built larger pyramids on top of existing ones, each with a flat top.

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The Gallery Pyramid.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

La Huanca monolith and pyramid. The 2.15m monolith is situated about 10m from the pyramid’s central steps and is set 2.3m into the ground.
Theories about the monolith’s meaning and function include a solar clock, ceremonial activities, and a marker from which the location of other pyramids and buildings were determined.

They used two types of stone for construction of the pyramids: blue river rocks from the Supe, which are harder than the granite, were used to chip away at granite blocks brought from the mountains.

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The primary building materials at Caral: granite and river rocks.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

The Sector F residential quadrangle. The Gallery Pyramid is behind the photographer and the Great Pyramid is to the left.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Walkways and pyramids from the second level of another pyramid.

Caral-Supe architects figured out that it was efficient to make nets — called shicra bags — from plants and vines to carry to rocks from the nearby hills and river — but they also discovered that leaving the rocks in the bags provided an effective way to fill foundations and supporting walls. Today the nets are metal and we call them “gabion walls”. Bamboo was used as an early form of rebar (reinforcing steel rods).

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Detail showing construction methods. Bamboo used as rebar (reinforcing bar) can be seen in the walls. The remains of nets made of vines and fibers holding large rocks — an early gabion wall.

There are two temples on the south side of the site. A large amphitheatre leads to one temple. Archaeologists believe the amphitheatre was used for communal celebrations and that people of all classes attended. Afterward, however, the priests would enter the temple for religious rituals that no one else could attend.

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The Temple of the Amphitheatre. The large, flat stone on the lower left has a petroglyph of a monkey etched on its surface.

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Close-up of petroglyph of monkey.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Steps to the Temple of the Amphitheatre.

Houses for the upper class and priests were fairly large, about 10 meters long and at least as wide. Each of the houses has a small fire pit near the front entrance and a flue that runs out to the street. Archaeologists believe that these fires were kept burning 24/7, perhaps to keep out evil spirits, perhaps to warm the “foyer”, perhaps both.

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A fire pit just inside the entrance to a residence that would have been occupied by members of the upper class or a priest. Each house has a small fire pit and the flue, seen in the lower centre, runs out to the street.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Altar of the Sacred Fire is part of the Temple of the Amphitheatre. This altar was for private ceremonies.

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Residences with a well visible in the foreground.

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Close-up of the well.

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Residential area D1, which is located to the left (west) of the Great Pyramid. Walkways throughout Caral are defined by small stones.

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Residences in the foreground with a pyramid immediately adjacent.

There is evidence that Caral engaged in limited human sacrifice but it is not known for what purpose. In the largest of the six pyramids the body of a naked teenager was found, his fingers missing, three blows to the skull and hands tied behind his back. But a burial site with four children has also been uncovered. Each child was wrapped in a shroud with gemstones inside. Conclusion: these children were loved and their loss mourned.

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Architectural detail on the Lesser Pyramid (Pirámide Menor): large granite cornerstones like the one seen here can be found on all pyramids at Caral.

It is not known whether the Caral-Supe people came from the mountains, migrated from across the sea, or may have been a continuation of the migration from Asia across the land mass that covered what is now the Bering Strait.

It is also not known what happened to them. There is no evidence of invasion or warfare. Archaeologists have suggested two theories. One is that severe climatic change, perhaps caused by El Niño, brought drought and starvation, forcing the people to abandon the city. Or, new civilizations further to the north arose, causing the Caral-Supe to move elsewhere.

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The Pirámide Mayor or Great Pyramid.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Close-up of the Great Pyramid and central staircase with the circular plaza in the foreground.

Further research may provide answers to these questions; meanwhile Caral reminds us that human beings can do extraordinary things with minimal tools and resources — and that the Western Hemisphere has a human history and cultures as rich and fascinating as anywhere in the world. Indeed, recent archaeological research closer to the Pacific Ocean suggests that there may be another city that pre-dates Caral.

web Caral: The Americas’ Oldest City

Map of Caral at entrance to the site. Caral Alto (Upper Caral) has a great central plaza with pyramids and residences located around it. The Great Pyramid is at top centre. The Lesser Pyramid is to the southeast. The Gallery pyramid is on the right of the plaza and La Huanca pyramid is to the lower left of the Gallery. Caral Bajo (Lower Caral) was laid out along one long street with the Temple of the Amphitheatre its most prominent building. Additional housing has been identified around the periphery.

About The Author

For over 35 years, Tommie Sue Montgomery has traveled, lived, done research, and taught in Latin America. For a quarter century her focus was Central America, primarily El Salvador. In the last decade she has been sharing her knowledge and love of Latin America as a enrichment lecturer on cruise ships from Mexico to Cape Horn. These voyages have enabled her and her husband to travel overland throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and the Southern Cone. When not traveling, Oshawa, Ontario is home.