Did the earliest major ‘pristine civilisation’ in South America, the Late Archaic Caral-Supe / Norte Chico culture, control trade in native silver from the Andes to the Pacific coast?
The history of civilisation in South America seems like a minefield. So much has yet to be found or excavated. So much has been looted. Perhaps the most exciting set of developments here are the emerging evidences of two very early, ‘complex’ cultures near the Peruvian coast.
One, near modern-day Barranca, is known as the Caral-Supe or Norte Chico ‘civilisation’ (depending on who you read). It is dated from the late fourth millennium BC to around 1800 BC, reaching its zenith around 2500BC. The other culture, located in the Casma Valley 200 km to the north, is unnamed but could be called the ‘Sechin Bajo culture’. It is dated to the middle and late fourth millennium BC. Both of these fall within what’s known as the Late Preceramic or Late Archaic Period. Sometimes these coastal sites are assigned to a Cotton Preceramic Stage.
Caral-Supe / Norte Chico culture
The Caral-Supe or Norte-Chico ‘civilisation’ is represented by at least 24, and perhaps as many as 95, sites along four rivers, Rio Fortaleza, Pativilca, Supe and Huaura, around 150km north of Lima¹. The majority of these sites are located along the Rio Supe, the best known being Aspero and Caral. Other sites, such as Bandurria, in the Rio Huaura, and Cabalette, in the Rio Fortaleza, are similiarly impressive. However, Caral is still the grandest.
As well as sometimes extensive evidence for housing, all the sites have monumental architecture in the form of pyramidal platforms and ‘sunken circular plazas’. The platforms are up to 18 metres high. The plazas are round basins tens of metres across, with vertical sides up to 3 metres deep and steep stairs, perhaps good for penning wild animals. The reason why these sites were not recognised before is that the buildings were made out of adobe bricks. Thus the monuments have been reshaped over time into natural-looking hills.
This site was found only in the last few years when digging below monumental architecture from a second millennium BC site². Whilst similar in type, it’s not nearly as impressive as those of the Caral-Supe, being simply a repeatedly remodelled sunken court and low platform. However, it appears to predate the Caral-Supe sites by perhaps several hundred years. Current dating suggests that this site was abandoned by the end of the fourth millennium BC, just when the Caral-Supe sites were taking off. Not until the Ceramic Period, around 1500BC, is there evidence of new monumental structures at the site.
Caral-Supe, Sechin bajo and pristine civilisations
Both Caral-Supe and the Sechin bajo site are currently the subject of considerable debate among archaeologists. This is because they do not conform to the expected pattern of how civilisations are supposed to emerge. For a start, none of the sites shows any evidence of pottery. This did not appear in Peru until it was adopted from the north in the Ceramic Period, around 1600BC. On the other hand, there is evidence for the growing and use of cotton.
Secondly, Michael Moseley has made a case that the coastal peoples of the Caral-Supe culture lived off seafood and did not farm. More evidence is gradually coming to light to show that centres further inland did practise irrigation agriculture, growing beans, squashes and sweet potatoes amongst other things. However, even if it were true that only coastal peoples of this complex society were living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle then it would be highly significant as civilisation is supposed to come after farming.
Regardless of this, it’s currently almost impossible to see what kind of society made these sites. The people in them drew few or no pictures and had no writing (although they may have had quipu – knotted accounting strings). They clearly dug ditches and built noticeable, grand structures, so they were organised in that sense. Perhaps they liked playing games with dangerous animals. But whether they were egalitarian, feudal, communist or capitalist is currently impossible to say.
I am intrigued by the location of the sites in both cultures. They lie at or within a few kilometres of the Pacific coast, mostly within Peru’s highly arid coastal strip. They are all at or near the heads of rivers 150km long or even less, which drain the mighty Andean Mountains to the east.
None of these features make the sites unique. There are many such rivers, and better, up and down the Peruvian coast. However, at least for the Caral-Supe sites there is something exceptional in the mountains beyond their rivers which might have been important.
Native silver has long been mined in the interior east of these sites. Mines such as Uchucchacua, Colquijirca and, possibly, Cerro de Pasco contained, and in some cases still contain, long wires of native silver within the upper, weathered zone of the earth. From the evidence I can gather this appears to be rare elsewhere in the Peruvian Andes. Uchucchacua is still the largest silver mine in Peru.
There’s pretty much no doubt that Late Preceramic South Americans were unable to smelt silver from silver ores. The earliest evidence for smelting (from lake sediments) indicates that smelting didn’t start here until the end of the first millennium AD^.
However, at Jiskairumoko, a site 800 km to the southeast in Puno dated to around 2000BC*, there’s evidence of an exceptional burial with nine hammered and rolled, native gold beads. If Peruvians could work native gold at this time then they may have had the capacity to extract small quantities of native silver for working too.
Silver was a highly prized metal in later South American cultures. However, there’s no evidence of silver in any burial before the second milennium AD. This, of course, begs the question ‘Did early Peruvians even know about silver?’ I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The gold find from Jikairumoko is really exceptional. Metal is endlessly reuseable and is therefore unlikely to go out of circulation through burial as often as a carved shell or stone would.
If people in the Caral-Supe sites were acting as middlemen in a native silver trade from the interior to the Pacific coast then the people of the Caral-Supe culture may have been exchanging it, at least in part, for another luxury from distant Ecuador to the north, Spondylus shell, which may have been sourced by the contemporary Valdivia culture. Certainly there is evidence of Spondylus turning up in the interior (e.g. at La Galgada) by the beginning of the second millennium BC.
Such an argument is highly speculative of course. It begs questions like ‘What’s the significance of the Sechin Bajo site?’. Perhaps more important is that archaeologists in Peru are really only at the beginning of understanding the Late Preceramic Period. There may well be many other sites of equal age and significance along the coast, just waiting to be found.
For example, a coastal site at Los Morteros, to the north, may include a pyramid that’s equally old if not older than those I’ve mentioned³. However, at the moment nothing of this early date quite matches the Caral-Supe sites in splendour and number, and I think that needs some explanation.
*Aldenderfer, M. et al. 2008 Four-thousand-year-old Gold Artifacts from the Lake Titicaca Basin, Peru, PNAS 105, p5002-5005.
^Cooke, C. A. et al. 2007 A Millennium of Metallurgy Recorded by Lake Sediments from Morococha, Peruvian Andes, Environmental Science and Technology 41, p3469-3474.
²Fuchs, P.R. et al. 2009 Del Arcaico Tardío al Formativo Temprano: las investigaciones en Sechín bajo, valle de Casma, Boletín de Arqueologíca PUCP 13, p55-86.
¹Jacobs, J. Q. 2000 (with amendments to 2008) Early Monumental Architecture on the Peruvian Coast: Evidence of Socio-Political Organization and the Variation in its Interpretation. (webpage)
¹Haas, J. et al. 2004 Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico region in Peru, Nature 432, p1020-1023.
¹Haas, J. & Perales Munguía, M.J. 2004 Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológica en el Norte Chico: Excavaciones en Caballete, Valle de Fortaleza, Perú (report), pp103.
Olson, E. 2011 Geoarchaeology of the Salinas de Chao Paleo-embayment, Chao, Peru, (preliminary report on fieldwork in the Los Morteros area)
³Sandweiss, D.H. 2004 GPR identification of an early monument at Los Morteros in the Peruvian coastal desert, Journal of Quaternary Research 73, p439-448. (there’s also a pdf available, try typing Sandweiss Los Morteros into google).