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The city of Cuzco is known as the capital of the Inca Empire and Machu Picchu as the base of one of the last Inca rulers. But very few people know that the Sacred City of Caral, in north-central Peru, was built by the first political state to be formed in America, 4,400 years before the rule of the Incas. The Caral civilization laid the foundations of social, political, and religious organization, of the cross-management of territory and its resources, of the production of knowledge and its technological application, and of other cultural expressions that were to last throughout the Andean cultural process.

The Caral civilization is one of the oldest civilizations on earth. Originating in a geographically diverse territory, it was based on a specialized but mixed economy of fishing and farming and within a complex sphere of interaction that integrated coastal, mountain, and high jungle populations.

The Caral-Supe social system took shape on the American continent in the same period as the other early civilizing centers of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. The people of Caral predated by at least 1,800 years those who inhabited Mesoamerica, where another of the world's six known centers of civilization has been identified. However, as opposed to other civilizations such as those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India, which exchanged goods, knowledge and experiences, the Caral civilization achieved an early development in complete isolation from its contemporaries in America.


This urban center is located at the start of the middle reaches of the Supe River valley, in the province of Barranca, department of Lima, near Km 184 on the North Pan-American Highway in north-central Peru. Of the urban settlements identified in this area as dating from the Late Archaic period (3000 to 2000 bce), Caral is the most remarkable because of its ordering of space and architectural complexity. Each settlement contains public buildings and the characteristic sunken circular plaza, plus various groups of dwelling areas. Caral is not the largest urban center, but it is distinguished by its elaborate architectural design—notably its spacious areas for public gatherings—and the heavy investment of labor evident in its construction. It covers 66 hectares, in which one can distinguish a central area and an outlying area. In the central area, the buildings are arranged in two sections: the upper section, containing the more exceptional public and residential constructions organized in sectors and streets, a sunken circular plaza, three areas for public gatherings, the homes of officials, and an extensive residential grouping of dwellings for specialists and public servants; and the lower section, with smaller buildings including the amphitheater architectural complex and a group of residences covering an area of equally small dimension. The outlying area, located on the periphery, has numerous residences grouped and arranged in the shape of an archipelago over the alluvial plain adjoining the river valley.

The public and residential constructions did not have a single exclusive religious, political, or residential use but instead served multiple functions and also contained workspaces. The homes of the elite replicated, on a smaller scale, some of the dimensions of the public buildings to which they were related.

The buildings display a similar architectural design and some recurring components, although their differences are denoted by their location within the city, their alignment with astral bodies, their size, and the materials used in their construction. The public buildings have a central section and two lateral sections, one on each side. The elements they share include a central stairway as an ordered axis of the construction, stepped terraces, a ceremonial room on the top with a fire pit in the center, a back room with a platform and two side rooms in addition to other rooms off to the side, and a small altar with a fire pit fed by underground ventilation shafts. This altar, with a single exception, is circular in shape in the lower-section buildings and quadrangular in those of the upper section. Every building had adjacent workshops as well as rooms for the eating and drinking that accompanied the more private ceremonies and rites. As for the artisans' and laborers' quarters, although smaller in size, they also had an area for receiving work and patios where work was performed, in addition to enclosures and small storerooms.

The constructed space in the Sacred City of Caral reveals a long history of change covering almost one thousand years, ranging from construction of the early buildings, to their enlargement and formalization, and then to a period of lesser investment in labor and materials at the end of the occupation. Caral had been inhabited for several centuries before it began its profound architectural transformation into a city based on a design that had been previously prepared and was then executed by functionaries with the necessary authority to organize the labor and ensure that specifications were met.

The symbolic significance of the public buildings is worthy of note. Although they were periodically renovated, their builders took care each time to retain the link between the old and the new, between the past and the present. In these spaces that belonged to their forbears and to them, Caral authorities, representing the collective, spoke with their ancestors and the gods. Both ancestors and deities were shared by the members of the group through their authorities and the constructed space. This identification bound each individual to the social fabric while providing emotional security.


The technological progress achieved in agriculture and fishing in the inter-Andean valleys and on the coast, and the organization of the inhabitants and trade in goods, all influenced the development of the productive forces among the various human groups inhabiting the north-central area and those of the Supe River basin in particular.

In Supe society, the cultivation of food and industrial plants (including the cotton used in making textiles, especially fishing nets) and the massive extraction of fish (especially anchovies) and mollusks fostered the local specialization of labor and economic complementarity through an ongoing trade in products between farming and fishing communities. This made it possible to accumulate a production surplus and to establish labor specialization, short- and long-distance trade, the social division of labor, and the rise of political authorities.


The surplus of society's production in agriculture and in fishing was distributed unequally to the benefit of the representatives of higher-status families and specialists in charge of the activities necessary to ensure reproduction of the system. In this way, farming and fishing communities formed in the north-central area, where they were called pachaca communities and were led by their political authorities. These authorities ordered the construction of public buildings for administrative and ceremonial purposes plus residential units and defined their territory of economic production.

The accumulation of a production surplus mainly benefited the populations settled in the middle reaches of the Supe River valley, in the best location for trade in goods. The added value in the manufacture of cotton fiber and the processing of anchovies and sardines for trade purposes enriched and enhanced the prestige of the political authorities in charge of local and interethnic trade. Chief among the political authorities was the hunu, or "lord of the lords" of the settlements in the valley and along the coast. This model of sociopolitical organization was to continue to reach far into pre-Hispanic Peru.

The pristine Caral-Supe state was able to mobilize enormous workforces and, through complex social networks, was able to attract for its own benefit the surplus produced over a wide territory consisting of the coastal valleys of Chancay, Huaura, Supe, Pativilca, and Fortaleza, the inter-Andean valleys of the Callejón de Huaylas and the area of Conchucos, and the upper Huallaga and Marañón river valleys in the high jungle. An extensive sphere of interaction was established in the area in which goods and knowledge circulated, thus linking populations on the Pacific coast to those in the Amazon Basin.

Although increased net-fishing activity and canal-irrigated agriculture generated production surpluses, and access to a variety of goods and experiences that supported scientific and technological development was made possible, there were no similar benefits in the social sphere. Hierarchical social strata formed, with a highly unequal distribution of social production.

This social division is evident in the residential architecture and in clothing and personal ornaments such as necklaces, the large earplugs of the male authorities, and the mantillas of the upper-society women. This distinction is also evident in the human remains, contrasting individuals with chronic anemia or with physical evidence of forced labor to children who received various treatments, all based on the social status of the particular individual's family.


These socioeconomic conditions supported the work of specialists. Various sciences, technologies, and arts developed. Astronomy, mathematics, biology, medicine, and other fields of knowledge were applied to predicting the weather, devising a calendar, building works of monumental architecture, managing soils and water by constructing irrigation and drainage canals and preparing fields for cultivation, genetically improving plants, treating disease, devising means of public administration, and manufacturing artifacts for ceremonial, business, and sumptuary purposes. The production of knowledge, fulfilled by specialists, also gave them power and enhanced living conditions for the populations of the north-central area during the emergence of civilization.


An elaborate system of beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies permeated the societies of the valleys on the coast between the Santa and Chillón rivers and in the neighboring regions of the Andes and surrounding jungle, linked by the dominant political state of Supe, or attracted by its prestige. Complex mythological universes were thus linked, sharing content and symbols and becoming identified as the Kotosh tradition.

In the absence of a military organization and armed forces, religion was used to achieve cohesion within the human group and to exercise control of society. The people lived their daily lives engaged in labor to produce for their own sustenance and for the service of their gods, authorities, and specialists, as well as to participate in construction, burial, and public remodeling works.


The first contribution that archaeological investigation in the Sacred City of Caral has made to present-day society is in the field of historical knowledge: This was a civilization of an antiquity comparable to that of Old World civilizations, providing evidence that allows scholars to question prior ideas regarding the formation of civilization, the state, and urban life and making it possible to evaluate the human condition on the planet.

In the specific case of Peru, this knowledge provides information on the great chronology and depth of the civilizing process and reveals the responses of the societies administering this territory and, as in other parts of the world, such knowledge serves to evaluate those experiences in order to recover each society's positive accomplishments and learn from its failures.

The Sacred City of Caral reveals the extraordinary creative capacity of the inhabitants of the varied north-central Andean territory, who, through effort and organization, were able to attain autonomously the state of civilization.

The relevance of Caral-Supe is based not only on its position as the oldest civilization in America, whose prestige lasted from 3,000 to 2,000 bce, but also on its having been the mother culture that established a model of sociopolitical organization that was to spread to other societies in contemporary Peru and to survive into later historic periods. From the era of Caral come the ayllu- and pachaca-based social and political systems, symbolic architectural elements such as atria and double-jamb doorways and niches, agricultural terraces, the calendar, geoglyphs and mastery of astronomy to determine climate changes, record keeping on quipus, and more. Despite differences in lifestyles, cultures, and languages in pre-Hispanic Peru, there was a cultural process with a shared substratum.

From a cultural perspective, the Sacred City of Caral is sure to become one of the most important instruments to strengthen Peru's cultural identity and social cohesion, to develop into a prominent identifying symbol that enhances the nation's self-esteem. And in terms of economics, the importance being attached to the Sacred City of Caral, through the investigation, consolidation, and restoration of its stunning public and residential buildings, will make it a first-class archaeological tourist attraction nationally and internationally and a source of significant income for improving the living conditions of the local population and of the country as a whole.

See alsoArchaeology; Indigenous Peoples.


Shady, R., et al. "Dating Caral, a Preceramic Site in the Supe Valley on the Central Coast of Peru." Science 292 (April 27, 2001): 723-726.

Shady, R., and C. Leyva, eds. La Ciudad Sagrada de Caral-Supe. Lima: Inst. Nat. de Cultura, 2003.

                                        Ruth Shady SolÍs