New dates confirm beginnings of civilization in South America

December 22, 2004

CHICAGO-- Recent archaeological excavations and a new series of 95 radiocarbon dates confirm the presence of an extraordinary complex of more than 20 major ceremonial and urban centers extending back more than 5,000 years.

These sites in three valleys along the Peruvian coast represent the oldest civilization in the Andes. They are characterized by stone pyramids, large circular ceremonial structures and extensive areas of residential architecture.

This group of sites, including the previously reported sites of Aspero and Caral, include the largest settlements and the most massive structures in prehistoric Americas during the 3rd millennium BC. Taken together, they represent the earliest common roots of the Inca Empire.

"The scale and sophistication of these sites is unheard of anywhere in the New World at this time, and almost any time," said Jonathan Haas, PhD, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum and lead author of the research, which will be published in Nature Dec. 23, 2004. "The cultural pattern that emerged in this small area in the third millennium BC later established a foundation for 4,000 years of cultural florescence in other parts of the Andes."

This emerging civilization was based on agriculture and included social hierarchies, centralized decision-making and formalized religion. It thrived on a multifaceted economy based on inland irrigation of cotton and food plants, diverse marine resources and a well-developed system of regular exchange of goods.

The 95 new radiocarbon dates come from 13 of 20 similar sites in two of the Norte Chico's river valleys, Pativilca and Fortaleza. The new dates establish that the first inland sites with large-scale architecture were occupied by 3100 BC, more than 400 years earlier than any other similar sites in South America. Added to previously published dates from Caral and other sites in the neighboring Supe Valley, 127 radiocarbon dates are now available from the region, firmly establishing a precocious civilization thriving in the Norte Chico for more than 1,200 years.

"Equally as important as the dates themselves is the fact that dates between 2000 BC and 3000 BC come from almost every site where we tested and collected samples," said Winifred Creamer, Ph.D., a co-author of the research, professor at Northern Illinois University and Adjunct Curator at The Field Museum. "This wasn't a single site where people were doing something really unusual, but a whole region, a whole culture, where people were organized to produce something their world hadn't seen before. The people who built the first of these pyramids and plazas had no model to go by and no precedent to use in building monuments and organizing labor on a large scale."

The findings confirm the emergence, development and continuous occupation of a major cultural complex in this region during the Late Archaic period (3000 BC to 1800 BC). The period is also known as the Cotton Preceramic since the people in this region had not yet developed pottery but did grow cotton and weave cotton textiles. They also made the cotton into fishing nets and traded for fish from fishing communities along the coast.

In fact, earlier scholarship indicated that the emergence of complex society in this region at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC was centered along the coast and based on maritime resources. Subsequent work demonstrated the existence of a substantial agriculturally based society at nearby inland sites. The new research indicates the inland sites were far more numerous, extensive and complexly organized than the coastal sites.

The inland sites range in area from 25 to more than 250 acres (10 to more than 100 hectares). They include from one to seven platform mounds - rectangular terraced pyramids up to 85 feet (26 meters) high. The largest of these pyramidal mounds range from 105,000 to more than 196,000 cubic yards (80,000 to more than 150,000 cubic meters) in volume.

"In Norte Chico, the path of cultural evolution in the Andean region diverged from a relatively simple hunting and gathering society to a much more complex pattern of social and political organization, with a mixed economy based on agriculture and marine exploitation," said Alvaro Ruiz, a graduate student in anthropology at Northern Illinois University and co-author of the research. "With this new information, we need to rethink our ideas about the economic, social and cultural development of the beginnings of civilization in Peru and South America."
Digital images available:
  • Measuring
    Archaeologists map a cleared surface at the top of Mound C on Vinto Alto in the Pativilca Valley.
    Photo by Jonathan Haas, courtesy The Field Museum

  • Digging buried wall
    Workers excavate a buried wall at Caballete in the Fortaleza Valley.
    Photo by Jonathan Haas, courtesy The Field Museum

  • Making bags (mural)
    Color mural depicts people making chicra net bags that were filled with rocks for pyramid construction.
    Mural by Jose Salazar

  • Worker
    Archaeologist excavates a cane and mud structure at Caballete in the Fortaleza Valley.
    Photo by Jonathan Haas, courtesy The Field Museum

  • Excavating buried structure
    Archaeologists excavate a cane and mud structure at Caballete in the Fortaleza Valley.
    Photo by Jonathan Haas, courtesy The Field Museum

  • Overview of Porvenir
    Aerial overview of the central ceremonial zone at Porvenir in the Fortaleza Valley, taken from an adjacent hill. The open area between the mounds is about 550 yards across.
    Photo by Jonathan Haas, courtesy The Field Museum

    Field Museum

    Related Cotton Articles from Brightsurf:

    NTU scientists report plastic could be 'eco-friendlier' than paper &cotton in Singapore
    Scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have modelled the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of using different types of shopping bags and report that in cities like Singapore, single-use plastic bags (made from high-density polyethylene plastic) have a lower environmental footprint than single-use paper and multi-use cotton bags.

    Research recommends integrated approaches to managing reniform nematodes in cotton
    While there are many pests affecting cotton, the reniform nematode is one the most damaging, with the ability to cause annual losses of approximately $33 million within the Mid-Southern United States.

    Nematode has potential to reduce cotton yields by 50 percent
    The reniform nematode is one of the most commonly found pests of cotton, with the ability to cause severe economic damage.

    HudsonAlpha plant genomics researchers surprised by cotton genome
    Plant genomics researchers at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology announce the surprising results of a cotton sequencing study led by Jane Grimwood, Ph.D., and Jeremy Schmutz, who co-direct the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center (HGSC).

    Picking up threads of cotton genomics
    In Nature Genetics, a multi-institutional team including researchers at the US Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) has now sequenced and assembled the genomes of the five major cotton lineages.

    Neither surgical nor cotton masks effectively filter SARS COV-2
    Both surgical and cotton masks were found to be ineffective for preventing the dissemination of SARS-CoV-2 from the coughs of patients with COVID-19.

    Fungi found in cotton can decrease root knot nematode galling
    Gregory Sword and colleagues at Texas A&M University inoculated cotton seeds with a diverse array of fungal isolates and tested the resulting seedlings in greenhouse trials for susceptibility to gall formation by root knot nematodes.

    Why does your cotton towel get stiff after natural drying?
    The remaining 'bound water' on cotton surfaces cross-link single fibers of cotton, causing hardening after natural drying, according to a new study conducted by Kao Corporation and Hokkaido University.

    Long-term analysis shows GM cotton no match for insects in India
    In India, Bt cotton is the most widely planted cotton crop by acreage, and it is hugely controversial.

    What if mysterious 'cotton candy' planets actually sport rings?
    Some of the extremely low-density, 'cotton candy like' exoplanets called super-puffs may actually have rings, according to new research published in The Astronomical Journal by Carnegie's Anthony Piro and Caltech's Shreyas Vissapragada.

    Read More: Cotton News and Cotton Current Events
  • is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to