A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Peru's Caral is the oldest city in the western hemisphere--and the focus of archaeology's most contentious fight.
Caral feels big. A complex of pyramids, circular plazas, and staircases, it sprawls over an arid plain above the Supe River Valley north of Lima with an air of monumentality like no other site in the Andes. After nearly a decade of excavation by Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady of Universidad de San Marcos, a site of giant proportions is finally emerging. Standing in Caral's main plaza, next to the monolith that acts as the site's visual center of gravity, pyramids looming up on every side with their ramps and frontal staircases, you feel the power of not just a long-lost ancient city but what is going to be, over the next generation or so, one of the most important archaeological projects in Latin America. The site is also emerging as the focus of a nasty dispute between scholars that threatens to overshadow Caral's significance.
Covering 165 acres, the site is one of the largest in Peru, but what really sets Caral apart is its age. Carbon dating on organic material found all over the site has revealed that its pyramids are some 4,700 years old, contemporary with those of Egypt and the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. Other sites are as old as Caral, but none approach the size and scope of its architecture. Caral's people dedicated themselves to their buildings with civic intensity, constantly making and remaking their stone-and-mortar walls, sunken plazas, and densely packed residences, adding new floors, repainting surfaces, tearing down walls and erecting new ones. They were early champions of home improvement.
To erect their structures, they perfected the "shicra-bag" technique, by which armies of workers would gather a long, durable grass known as shicra in the highlands above the city, tie the grass strands into loosely meshed bags, fill the bags with boulders, and then pack the trenches behind each successive retaining wall of the step pyramids with the stone-filled bags. With bags acting as landfill, anchoring and reinforcing the structure at each stage, the people of Caral were able to build pyramids up to 70 feet tall.
Five thousand years later, these shicra bags have led to an intellectual fight to the death between Shady and archaeologists Jonathan Haas of Chicago's Field Museum and Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University, a husband-and-wife team. The hothouse world of Peruvian archaeology is notorious for its spats, but this one has taken the vitriol to unprecedented levels--public insults, a charge of plagiarism, ethics inquiries in both countries, and complaints by Peruvian officials to the U.S. government. Groundbreaking research into the origins of civilization in the Americas is being carried out by two groups that won't talk to each other or share information, regularly attack each other in public, and, in private interviews, make inflammatory charges about the other's allegedly shoddy work. Colleagues fear the dispute could make it harder for American archaeologists to gain permission to work in Peru.
Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, is a contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY and last reported for the magazine on antilooting patrols in northern Peru.