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The Norte Chico Civilization: Ancient Peruvian Civilization or Complex Society?

Norte Chico: The First Civilization in the Americas?


The Norte Chico Civilization was an ancient civilization/complex society belonging to the Pre-Columbian era. This civilization flourished in Peru about 5000 years ago, and is believed to be the oldest known civilization to have existed in the Americas.

The Norte Chico Civilization is notable today for its monumental constructions, including massive ceremonial pyramids and complex irrigation systems. This ancient civilization lasted until around 1800 BC, after which the settlements were abandoned.

Pyramids at Caral, Supe Valley, Peru. (estivillml /Adobe Stock) The complexity of the Norte Chico Civilization may be seen in the monumental works that they left behind, especially their ceremonial pyramids.

Location of Norte Chico Civilization Sites

The sites of the Norte Chico Civilization are situated around 200 km (124.27 miles) to the north of Lima, in what is today the Norte Chico region of north-central coastal Peru, near Supe, Barranca province. This civilization is also known as the Caral / Caral-Supe Civilization, as its best-studied site is Caral in the Supe Valley.

Based on radiocarbon dating, it has been suggested that the formative period of the Norte Chico Civilization was sometime during the 4th millennium BC. The civilization’s greatest period of expansion, however, belongs to the 3rd millennium BC.

The dating of the Norte Chico Civilization shows that these inland sites were developing around the same time as their coastal neighbors. This is important, as it challenges the conventional view that all early civilizations in Peru and the rest of South America began by the sea as coastal settlements.

However, a close inter-dependent relationship between the peoples of the coast and the Norte Chico Civilization also existed. Trade is believed to have been based on fish from the coast being exchanged for cotton (for the production of fishing nets) from the interior.

Handicraft from Peru: fisherman on a totora horse. (christian vinces /Adobe Stock)

The Norte Chico Civilization’s Monumental Architecture

The complexity of the Norte Chico Civilization is best demonstrated with the monumental works that they left behind. The most conspicuous of these are their ceremonial pyramids (sometimes referred to as platform mounds). These pyramids, which are terraced, are rectangular in shape, and were built of stone.

In Caral, a total of six pyramids have been discovered, the largest of which is the ‘Pirámide Mayor’ (Major Pyramid). It has been postulated that the pyramids were built by stuffing stone-filled reed bags against a retaining wall. This process was repeated until the desired pyramid was formed.

The Sacred City of Caral has been referred to as “a 5,000-year-old metropolis complete with complex agricultural practices, rich culture, and monumental architecture, including six large pyramidal structures, stone and earthen platform mounds, temples, amphitheater,  sunken circular plazas, and residential areas.”

The Norte Chico Civilization was also adept at constructing irrigation canals for improved agricultural conditions. All examples of monumental architecture built by this civilization are situated close to irrigation canals, further indicating the significance of the canals in everyday life.

Reed "shicra-bags", like this one found at Caral, were filled with stones and used for construction by the Norte Chico Civilization.

Reed "shicra-bags", like this one found at Caral, were filled with stones and used for construction by the Norte Chico Civilization. (Xuaxa/CC BY SA 3.0)

Was Norte Chico an Ancient Civilization or Complex Society?

While there is evidence that the Norte Chico Civilization was building great monuments, it is just one piece of evidence suggesting it was a civilization. Many other factors are generally required to qualify a society as a ‘civilization’ – and it seems Norte Chico is missing some of them.

For example, there is very little evidence of artistic expression in the Norte Chico Civilization. But one possible explanation for this is that the artwork did not survive as archaeological material, as the art may have been made on perishable material.

Another criterion for a ‘civilization’ is urbanization, and archaeologists are not entirely certain if the Norte Chico Civilization sites may be called ‘urban’. Therefore, some prefer to use the term ‘complex society’ rather than ‘civilization’ when referring to Norte Chico.

Aerial photo of the ‘Caral Amphitheater.’ There is debate whether the Norte Chico Civilization is ‘urban’ enough to be called a civilization, or if it should be called a complex society instead.

Aerial photo of the ‘Caral Amphitheater.’ There is debate whether the Norte Chico Civilization is ‘urban’ enough to be called a civilization, or if it should be called a complex society instead. (Realhistory)

An Ancient Civilization Without Pottery

Another interesting aspect about the Norte Chico Civilization is that there is no evidence to indicate that they were in possession of pottery technology. This is rather odd, when one considers that human societies usually acquire ceramic-making skills before going on to build monumental constructions.

Instead of pots the people of the Norte Chico Civilization seem to have used gourds instead. These vessels would have allowed for storage, however another important function of pots, i.e. as cooking vessels, could not be replicated by the gourds.

A figure which may represent a deity has been found on some of the gourds. At the moment, these are the few known examples of possible Norte Chico art. In addition, if these figures represent a divine being, it would also indicate that the civilization had some kind of religious belief system.

Top: Gourd painted with a god figure. Bottom: color enhanced gourd painted with a god figure.

Top: Gourd painted with a god figure. Bottom: color enhanced gourd painted with a god figure. (Realhistory)

The archaeological evidence shows that the settlements of the Norte Chico Civilization were abandoned after 1800 BC. While it is not entirely clear why the abandonment took place, it has been speculated that the people of this civilization migrated to other parts of Peru and took their skills along with them.

A City that Sought Help from the Gods

One possible explanation for why the Norte Chico settlements were abandoned 3,800 years ago comes from research at the site called Vichama. Soon before they left their home, the people carved snakes and human heads into their walls alongside depictions of emaciated people. Archaeologists believe these features mean the people who lived in the settlement were starving and dying and hoped a water deity would finally be lenient and send them some rain to let their friends, family, and neighbors survive.

Wall carvings found in Vichama, Peru. (Zona Arqueológica Caral / Andina)

It has also been suggested that the wall carvings show the inhabitants of Vichama wanted to show others about the hardships they faced when rain was scarce. And even more interesting, if the results of research at the site are correct, the people in Vichama survived the climate change, unlike those in the Norte Chico hub - Caral.

Top image: An aerial view of the ‘Pirámide Mayor’ in Caral, the main city of the Norte Chico Civilization. Source: Realhistory

By Wu Mingren


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Most likely cooking was possible with the use of large leaves to wrap the meat or vegetables as is done with some native Mesoamerican and polynesian recipes. The items are cooked with hot stones baked in a fire pit. All is then covered with stones, dirt and more leaves and allowed to roast
Tamales are still wrapped in corn husks.
Otherwise there is the ancient spit over an open fire.

Could this civilization be a precursor to the Olmecs?

Dr. Ruth Shady, in presenting a lecture to hundreds of University students in Trujillo, Peru (2009) electrified the audience when she stated: Caral “gave birth” to the nation of Peru (based on evidence of trade throughout all of Peru including the Amazon Jungle and territories in Chile and Ecuador, too). We had the privilege to return to Trujillo in 2015 and visit Caral. I was fascinated to learn that genetic modification was practiced in Caral to produce three distinct colors of cotton, and to learn that cotton nets were used to hold stones in the base of the pyramids to stabilize the base during earthquakes. Because there is no evidence in Caral of fortresses much less of warfare, I’ve wondered if perhaps a virus such as Ebola could have been brought back to Caral from the jungle, thus causing its decline, and the migration of survivors to other regions given that centuries of trade had established “friendly relations”. Many thanks for an interesting article. I look forward to others.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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