The ancient Peruvian site of Caral may have been one of the first urban centers in the Americas, thriving more than a thousand years before other known cities, according to a study in the April 27 issue of the international journal Science.
New radiocarbon dating analysis indicates that Caral's immense stone structures were built between 2600 and 2000 B.C. "This inland metropolis is therefore the same age as smaller maritime-based societies on the coast, previously thought to precede more complex societies," Science reported Thursday.
Archaeologists discovered Caral in 1905, but had not known its age until now.
It is one of 18 sites in the Supe valley of central Peru, all of which have monumental, or larger than house-size, architecture. Such structures are typically associated with civilizations younger than 1500 B.C.
"What we're learning from Caral is going to rewrite the way we think about the development of early Andean civilization," said Science co-author Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago.
Given the scale of architectural and agricultural development in Caral, Haas said, early urban planners were "power players."
"The size of a structure is really an indication of power," he said. "It means that leaders of the society were able to get their followers to do lots of work. People don't just say, 'Hey, let's build a great big monument.' They do it because they're told to and because the consequences of not doing so are significant."
Haas and his colleagues, Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University and Ruth Shady Solis of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of reed fibers from shicra bags found at Caral. ("Shicra" is the indigenous word for "woven.")
According to the researchers, workers used the bags to carry rocks for building enormous structures called platform mounds, which were used for both ceremonies and as residences for high-status citizens. Instead of reusing the bags, workers placed them, rocks and all, inside the structures' retaining walls.
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