Caral was the place where it all started, just a few hours north of Lima, Peru.
I don’t refer to an incident, or even a long, dramatic series of events. By “it all,” I am referring to everything.
The ruins at Caral are the oldest signs of civilization in the western hemisphere. They were built at the same time as the pyramids of Egypt, and are only 200 years more recent than the oldest of the old in Mesopotamia.
The type of structures they built? Pyramids…hmmm.
We decided to pile into a bus, and ride the three hours along the coastal highway to visit this pile of stones in the middle of nowhere. The ride itself was a spectacular visual journey. As we traveled outside of Lima, every strata of society displayed its living arrangement.
Once clear of the suburbs, the Pan American Highway treated us to alternating views of rugged coastline, and giant valleys filled with small fields of corn, strawberries, or fresh flowers. The ride itself is a great part of the trip. The final half hour was a low speed journey through the valley of Caral, and across a dry riverbed that made us question the agility of the tour bus.
We arrived at the ruins at midday (Middle and Youngest called them “big piles of rocks and dirt”). Fortunately, the sun was still behind clouds as it is in most of the winter. The old city itself consisted of about a half dozen larger pyramids, maybe four or five stories tall, and a few smaller structures. Some housed large burn pits, essentially giant stone furnaces, used for cooking and sacrificing stuff to the gods of barbecue.
The reasons mankind sought to live clustered together is still a subject of some argument. As hunter-gatherers, more people means more mouths to feed. Until food could be stored, anything beyond immediate family just needs to go find their own food.
Except there is no evidence of pottery at Caral.
Another theory is that people got tired of hunting and gathering, and decided that they could form roaming bands and clunk other people over the head and take their food, so thus people began clustering together to defend themselves against warring factions.
Except there is no evidence of weapons at Caral, either.
As it turns out, the current theory is that someone figured out they could weave fishing nets out of cotton, which grew too far from the ocean to be of any use, but if the nets were carried to the ocean, they could be traded for fish. Since Caral is a day’s walk from either resource, it looks like it started as a trading post. It’s built on the very border of the coastal desert, on a patch of ground that looks like it has never seen a blade of grass, which made sense as agriculture developed in the valley.
For those seeking a tourist experience in Peru, the Caral day-trip isn’t at all like the jungles of the Amazon, or the mountains of Machu Picchu. It’s more relaxed and reflective, as you imagine people living and working there, who have been gone for five millennia. For reasons that were revolutionary at the time, people decided that living together was better than roaming the world alone.
It isn’t nearly as interesting as the theory I had. I always thought civilization sprang forth due to the discovery of beer.