Caral: The oldest architectural wonder of the American continent

The architectural wonders of the past are still great sources of inspiration. The ancient cities of stone, complex –and difficult to erect– structures (even with today’s technology) can leave everybody breathless, even the most fair-minded visitor.

Caral: The oldest architectural wonder of the American continent
Courtesy of Carsten ten Brink at Flickr.com

Caral, the oldest city in the Americas, is an excellent example of this kind of architectural complexity. More than five thousand years old, the ruins of this city in the Peruvian desert attract thousands of tourists, archaeologists, architects and engineers, eager to unravel its mysteries lost in the dust of time. Considered as Cultural Heritage by UNESCO (2009) and discovered in 1949, the sacred city of Caral is perhaps one of the oldest civilizations on earth.

The City is located in the initial part of the Supe Valley, in the Barranca province, north of Lima, 114 miles away from the Panamerican highway in the north-central area of Peru. Along with Caral, nineteen settlements have been identified in the same period, spread over 25 miles in coastal areas around the Supe Valley region. In each of these archaeological sites you can find pyramidal public buildings, sunken circular plazas and stone-made households. The whole city of Caral is the urban center where an elaborate spatial planning and an improved architectural complexity may be appreciated. This urban settlement belonging to the Late Archaic period (3000 – 1800 BC) highlights of all identified in Peru, and it’s easy to know why.

The most conservative calculations estimate that the sacred city of Caral housed from one thousand to three thousand inhabitants, and that was a large population five thousand years ago. It has been determined that there was a great social differentiation, ie, the population was divided into social classes, each of which met certain functions and were organized in a hierarchical manner. Some groups were responsible for planning and for making executive decisions (mostly priests), and other manual tasks, such as fishing, construction, agriculture, etc.

As the builders of colossal pyramid-shaped buildings, the ancient society of Caral was admired by other communities of their time in the Andes. The pyramid in the Andes is a building used by the chiefs as the center of their activities, whether religious, political or economic. It was the symbol and the center of their power.

Related article: Tiwanaku: The mysterious pre-Incan architectural wonder, by Kenny Slaught

Caral pyramids are the oldest found so far in the Andes (about 3000 B.C.) Actually, building this kind of structures required a high degree of technology and social organization, considering the diverse problems of its construction and the high cost of materials and energy. Just like the Mayans, they did not use wheels at all for building such pyramids.

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Courtesy of Martin Garcia at Flickr.com

This ancient city of pyramids was erected on the left bank of Supe River on a large terrace which is 1148 feet over the sea level. This site occupies an area of about 160 acres. The Supe Valley is a narrow fertile creek, and by this place it has a maximum width of 5.7 miles. The area is dry and stark, and there are no many water sources available. Yet, it was an important economic center back in its days.

The most important examples of monumental architecture are given in the heart of the sacred city. Its main buildings are stepped pyramids (actually temples), made of adobes and stones; as complementary elements like stems and plant fibers. The size of the structures varies, but the most impressive, both in height and volume, is called “La Pirámide Mayor” (the Great Pyramid, in Spanish.)

The walls of the pyramidal structure are plastered with mud and painted white or light yellow, and, rarely, red. Each building had a central staircase leading to the top where several rooms were built. The main room had low platforms located on two or three sides, and, in the center, there was always a stove (which consisted of a simple hole in the ground, covered with mud.) The signs indicate that the fire had a ritual function, and the people offered animals and food to the goods, just like in the old temples of Sumer and Egypt.

Caral pyramids are built as an overlay in order to gain altitude. The top of the last platforms were the most important and private places, where few people concurred in the bottom of the square, instead of large crowds. A staircase connects the two sides: a symbolic feature, related to the pre-Incan cosmogony.

To build these platforms of stone, retaining those walls together just with mud, the large long stones alternating with smaller ones which were used… those are the signs of a complex civilization. The interior was filled with stones and mud, containing plant fibers and woven nets (called “shicras”.) It was the most widely used building technique. The structural containment and facades consisted of three types of walls.

Besides being an attractive place for tourism, Caral is a great source of information. After all, it was the first major city in the continent, and its influence spread for miles in all directions.

Recommended: The world’s 20 oldest cities

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