- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

CARAL, Peru — A sudden wind gust blows down eerily from rocky Andean foothills, kicking up cinnamon-colored clouds over the moonscape of ruins that is the oldest city in the Americas.

The sky is a crisp blue. All around in the Supe River Valley are lush fields of onion and corn.

We are in Caral, three hours and nearly 5,000 years from contemporary Lima, Peru’s bustling capital, and we have spent the past half-hour or so on a bumpy drive from the coast along a dirt road blocked periodically by bleating herds of goats and sheep.

Caral made headlines in 2001 when researchers carbon-dated material from the city back to 2627 B.C. It is a must-see for archaeology enthusiasts.

Although the dusty, wind-swept Supe River Valley doesn’t approximate in majesty the mountains that surround the famed Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, Caral’s ruins are an unforgettable sight under the glow of a fiery sunset.

Dotted with pyramid temples, sunken plazas, housing complexes and an amphitheater, Caral is one of 20 sites attributed to the ancient Caral-Supe culture that run almost linearly from Peru’s central coast inland up the Andes.

The ruins changed history when researchers proved that a complex urban center in the Americas thrived as a contemporary to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt — 1,500 years earlier than previously believed.

Much remains to be discovered about Caral and the Caral-Supe culture that flourished here for more than 1,000 years.

Ruth Shady, a Peruvian archaeologist from San Marcos University, discovered Caral in 1994 and was stunned by its size and complexity.

“Caral combined size with construction volume, but also it was a planned city,” she says.

Miss Shady and her team continue working at Caral, but she also dedicates her time to promoting the project with Peru’s National Culture Institute as a tourist and educational destination.

About 21,000 visitors came to Caral in 2005, up from about 7,000 in 2003, according to the Commission for the Promotion of Peru.

The ruins offer a front-row seat to archaeology in action as scientists dust off piles of rock or supervise the reconstruction of a crumbling pyramid wall that thousands of years ago gleamed red, yellow or white.

The ancient society comes to life with the help of these archaeologists, who make up about half of the site’s tour guides along with the locals they have trained.

The 163-acre city was the administrative center for a complex civilization. The society’s clear class distinctions are evident in the wide variety of home sizes and neighborhoods even though they are only crudely reconstructed.

One complex thought to have housed farmers was partly excavated on a dry and inhospitable patch of land on the outskirts of Caral, while a spacious home for wealthy families was built beside the important and impressive Huanca Pyramid, whose steep staircases narrow as they reach the structure’s flat top.

Caral’s largest social class was dedicated to agricultural production, Miss Shady says. Farmers used irrigation canals to nourish their crops of pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, corn, chili peppers and cotton with Supe River waters.

In the city’s amphitheater, musicians played flutes crafted from pelican and condor skeletons and horns made from llama or alpaca bones.

Miss Shady also has uncovered evidence of extensive trading. Shrimp and mollusks from Peru’s coast have been found at Caral.

Caral-Supe residents capitalized on the various climate zones they inhabited by growing a wide variety of foods. The region’s agriculture and fishing industries complemented each other.

“They managed an economy that articulated the productivity” of the various regions, Miss Shady says.

Painstaking detective work and reconstruction is necessary as these archaeologists little by little uncover a lost world.

The Caral-Supe ruins are far from intact, unlike many of Peru’s famed Inca ruins that date back half a millennium and are scattered throughout the Sacred Valley in Peru’s Andean state of Cuzco.

Machu Picchu in nearby Cuzco state is, of course, the country’s top tourist destination.

Aspero, another major Caral-Supe site on Peru’s central coast, 16 miles from Caral, was discovered in 1905, but its pyramids were thought to be naturally formed hills.

A garbage dump was built on top of it, and as Miss Shady’s team excavates, trash needs to be cleared away.

The archaeologists have discovered that fishermen from Aspero provided sardines, anchovies and other fish for the sprawling culture.

“We’re going to be able to learn about the social system, the economic and political organization, the ideology,” Miss Shady says of the excavations throughout the Supe Valley.

“It’s very important because it’s the oldest civilization in America. And for that reason, native peoples see it as a symbol that in America there had been the same capacity to create civilizations as ancient as in the Old World.”

• • •

Caral, Peru, is about 120 miles from Lima; visit www.caralperu.gob.pe (clicking “ingresar” to enter site, then clicking on English) or www.peru.info (clicking on the U.S. flag for English).

The most comfortable option is to hire a private car through a hotel in Lima or rent a car for about $35 a day from Hertz, National or Budget at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport and the San Isidro and Miraflores neighborhoods. For more intrepid and independent travelers, buses cost about $5 for a three-hour trip from Lima to Huacho, Supe or Barranca; from there, hire a taxi to the ruins for about $10.

Hotel Centenario in Huacho (phone 51/1-232-3731); doubles, $20, including continental breakfast.

Hotel Chavin in Barranca, (51/1-235-2358); doubles, $25.

Hotel Continental in Barranca (51/1-235-2458); doubles, $12.

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