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The Lost Pyramids of Caral
BBC Two 9.00pm Thursday 31 January 2002

Caral overturns one theory of why nomadic people became settled in cities Click for programme summary
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NARRATOR (JOHN SHRAPNEL): It is one of humanity's epic journeys. Thousands of years ago people first came out of the wild and formed civilisation. They would build huge monuments, like the pyramids and all the great cities of the Ancient World, but why did they do it? What forces gave birth to civilisation? For years archaeologists have been trying to get back to when it all began to find the answer and now at last it seems they may have done it, for they are now exploring a lost city of pyramids in Peru. It is nearly five thousand years old and the story it tells about why we embarked on this great journey is more extraordinary than anyone had ever expected. Peru's desert coast, trapped between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Nothing survives out here. Explorers once hurried through in search of the gold and the treasures of the Incas hidden in the mountains beyond, but no one stopped, but then seven years ago somebody did. Ruth Shady had heard of some mysterious unexplained mounds and, alone, set off through the desert to find them and then right in the middle of this dead land she found this: a huge hill rising out of the desert.

DR RUTH SHADY (University of San Marcos, Lima): When I first arrived in the valley in 1994 I was overwhelmed. This place is somewhere between the seat of the gods and the home of man. It is a very strange place.

NARRATOR: Then as she looked closer she thought she could see something hidden under the rubble and stones. In her mind's eye she could make out the faintest outline of a pyramid and as she looked around she could she another and then another. Ruth Shady had stumbled on a lost city. It was a discovery that would stun the world of archaeology because it would finally begin to solve one of the great unanswered questions: why our ancestors abandoned a life of simplicity and started down the road to civilisation. Today's modern city is the pinnacle of human civilisation. Millions of people choosing to live and work together. In a civilisation everyone has a specific task that helps towards a common goal. Workers, professionals, home-makers - they all come together to build the same society. Above them all, powerful rulers. They command who does what and when and where they do it, but it was not always like this. How this complex system came about has long been a huge puzzle to scientists.

PROF C.C. LAMBERG-KARLOVSKY (Harvard University): For more than a century surely one of the most important questions addressed by archaeologists is also its biggest. What is the origin of civilisation? This has been a central theme, a guiding post for virtually all archaeologists working on every continent of the world.

NARRATOR: Because civilisation was not inevitable. For more than a hundred thousand years there were neither rulers nor cities. Humanity either roamed the world in small family groupings, or lived in tiny villages. There was little planning, little leadership and no future. Just survival and then something happened. Six thousand years ago people started to move out of their villages and build huge cities. Archaeologists called this crossing the great divide. This happened in six places across the world - in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and India - and in the New World in Peru and Central America. Without these pioneers crossing that great divide our modern world would not exist.

DR KEN FEDER (Central Connecticut State University): And what's exciting for us is that here we are in the 21st century living in societies that ultimately are, that ultimately result from that historical change, that historical divide.

NARRATOR: Archaeologists examined each early civilisation in turn searching for clues as to why they'd suddenly appeared and again and again they found they had many things in common.

C.C. LAMBERG-KARLOVSKY: For instance, numeracy, mathematics and calendrical systems. Writing.

KEN FEDER: Pottery. Metallurgy.

NARRATOR: But above all there was something else.

KEN FEDER: Monumental architecture.

NARRATOR: In every early civilisation it was the same. Huge, monumental structures. This was the ultimate sign of people coming together under rulers for a common goal. Pyramids marked the arrival of civilisation.

KEN FEDER: You can't build a huge structure like that on the basis of consensus. You have to have leaders and followers, you have to have specialists, you have to have people who are in charge, people who can tell individual groups alright today you will be doing this, this group you're going top be doing something different.

NARRATOR: But none of this explained why our ancestors crossed this historic divide. What had made us give up the simple life for the city? That question still bewitches archaeologists because to explain it is to understand the very soul of modern humanity.

KEN FEDER: And that's the key question: how does that happen, when does it happen and why does it happen?

NARRATOR: There were, of course, plenty of theories. Some said it was irrigation, others trade, some claim even today it was aliens, but many said it was something else entirely, something terrifying: warfare. The theory was simple. Warfare forced groups of villages to huddle together for protection. This led to new ways of organising society. Powerful leaders emerged and these leaders became pharaohs and kings. They would assign tasks and organise lives. Complex society was born out of fear. For 20 years Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer have tested the warfare theory around the world. A husband and wife team of archaeologists, they've found the tell-tale signs of battle in every early civilisation.

JONATHAN HAAS (Field Museum, Chicago): As you look at culture, as it becomes more complex, warfare seems to be everywhere, that these societies seem to be always at war, or war's depicted in the art, war's depicted in the architecture, you see a warrior class or you see standing armies, you see generals. When you get writing, writing is about warfare.

NARRATOR: While it is not universally accepted, many agree with Haas's conclusions that warfare was a crucial driving force behind the birth of modern society.

C.C. LAMBERG-KARLOVSKY: I frankly find it difficult to conceive of the emergence of urbanisation complexity civilisation in the absence of degrees of conflict, or the presence of, of warfare.

NARRATOR: But it was only a theory. Archaeologists had no proof, so they spent years scouring the earth, hunting for a way of turning theory into fact. What they needed to find was what archaeologists call a mother city. This is the missing link of archaeology, the very first stage of civilisation, just as humanity crossed the great divide.

KEN FEDER: So if we could find one of these absolutely earliest stages of civilisation it would make an enormous contribution to our understanding of the process of the development of civilisation.

NARRATOR: If their theory was right, then the mother city should be filled with the signs of battle, but they always hit the same obstacle. Civilisations constantly build upon themselves. It means the earliest stages are all but wiped out.

KEN FEDER: Human beings reconstruct buildings, human beings recycle materials. It is very often difficult to be able to coax out of that mass of material sort of the base of that civilisation. What constitutes the original civilisation.

NARRATOR: After years of searching in the Old World they'd found little. They still needed to find the earliest stage that had not been built on, somewhere pristine and so the search for the mother city switched from the Old World to the New. Peru, home to one of the greatest of all civilisations - the Incas. Here high in the Andean mountains they ruled a mighty empire until destroyed by the Spaniards five hundred years ago, but the origins of this great civilisation stretch back thousands of years and its earliest stages remain shrouded in mystery and so the search for the mother city settled here, this time on the Peruvian coast where, thousands of years ago, it all began. Seven years ago the search to find that elusive first stage of civilisation arrived here, just 10 miles from the coast in the Casma Valley. Something truly spectacular was discovered, one of the biggest pyramids in the world. This pyramid is so huge that for a century explorers ignored it, convinced it could only be a hill. It is the rival of anything in Egypt.

DR TOM POZORSKI (University of Texas-Pan American): This is a pyramid that ranks as one of the largest in the world, period. It's one that covers on the surface of the mound it covers like 15 football fields. The volume of it is some, we calculate something like two million cubic metres of material.

NARRATOR: But the pyramid was only the beginning. The whole site spreads out over six miles and includes a host of lesser pyramids. In front of the main pyramid four plazas extend out for over a mile. Thousands of people could have met and done business here. The Casma Valley is one of the wonders of Peru and it is a site that reeks of civilisation.

TOM POZORSKI: Visitors of this valley, upon first seeing this pyramid, what is said this society that built it had its act together. This society's very powerful, this society is, is a society that really is very highly organised.

NARRATOR: Tom Pozorski and his wife Sheila were about to make Casma into one of the sensations of archaeology because four years ago they unearthed some wooden poles inside the main pyramid. Wood can be carbon dated. The results showed it had been built in 1500 BC. It made Casma the oldest city ever discovered in the Americas and an instant candidate to be the mother city. Then they dug deeper and everywhere they found the tell-tale signs of a civilisation at its very earliest stage. There was pottery, but it was very simple and there was art, but again it was crude. Everything was at its most basic. It all seemed to point to one thing - Casma had to be the mother city, but the final question for the archaeologists was were there signs of battle, was it really true that the first civilisations were born out of warfare? Then came the final breakthrough. It happened in one of the outlying pyramids. There they found some carvings.

TOM POZORSKI: We have warrior figures next to their victims who are cut up, they're beheaded, their bodies cut in half.

JONATHAN HAAS: Heads have blood flowing from their eyes and blood flowing from their mouths and then you have body parts so you'll have just the leg and you'll have a torso or you'll have feet and you'll have crossed hands.

NARRATOR: For archaeologists like Jonathan Haas these carvings confirmed what they'd long suspected: warfare really did seem to be the force that gave birth to civilisation. It appeared the answer to why we'd crossed the great divide from the simple to the civilised had been found. Archaeology's great quest seemed to have ended at Casma, the mother city, but Casma's days as an archaeological sensation were numbered. Just as it was reaching the height of its fame, Ruth Shady found her mysterious hills and they would transform everything. Ruth went back to the site again and again and she took with her a team of students and archaeologists. Their first task: to get a rough idea of how old Caral, as the site was known, actually was. For this they needed to find pottery because archaeologists are skilled at dating sites just by the style of the pottery they find, but after weeks of searching they found nothing.

RUTH SHADY: For two months we looked for pottery. Every night we asked each other if anybody had found any, but nobody had. We were completely baffled.

NARRATOR: This was very puzzling. Every early civilisation is littered with pottery, even Casma, but not this one, so they looked for something else you'd expect to find in a civilisation: metal tools, but the only tools they found were made not of metal but stone. There was only one conclusion: this was a civilisation at an extraordinarily early stage.

RUTH SHADY: Little by little as we analysed our findings, we began to realise that this place was completely different to anything we had seen before and it was much older than we'd expected.

NARRATOR: But how old? They'd still found nothing they could date and so they decided to dig inside Caral's biggest structures - the pyramids. This was a massive undertaking. The site was enormous and the pyramids huge. Ruth needed help, so she recruited the Army. In their way lay thousands of tons of sand, rubble and stones built up over millennia. It would have to be shifted and so as to avoid any damage to the original structures it could only be done one bucket at a time. Gradually they caught glimpses of what lay beneath: some of the original stones, traces of plaster, paint not seen for thousands of years, a series of staircases and the wall at the front of the pyramid. There was no doubt these pyramids would have required craftsmen, architects, a huge workforce and leaders, all the trappings of civilisation and then at last one of her team found what they were looking for. Sticking out of the foundations of one of the buildings were reeds. These reeds had been woven into what are called shicra bags and the bags clearly had been used to carry the stones from the mountains. It's a technique found only in the very oldest buildings in Peru. Reeds can be carbon dated. it meant that at last Ruth could find out just how old Caral was, but she lacked the facilities to do it herself and so she sought help from abroad and so last year Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer were invited to the site. What they saw stunned them.

JONATHAN HAAS: It was the most incredible assemblage in the, of archaeological sites that we had ever seen anywhere in the world. it was literally one of those double-take moments when your mouth drops open and you go my God, I've never seen anything like that in my life.

NARRATOR: They had no doubt Caral was a site of potentially huge importance. It made their dating of the shicra bags all the more crucial. They took 12 samples to the University of Illinois for testing. If the bags were from about 1400 BC Caral would certainly be an important discovery, but younger than Casma. Dates around 2000 BC would make it the oldest city in the Americas. Dates any earlier seemed inconceivable. Three months later the results arrived.

DR WINIFRED CREAMER (Northern Illinois University): I was at work and Jonathan called me and he said they are absolutely great, they're all early.

NARRATOR: The bags were dated at 2600 BC. Caral was nearly five thousand years old, as old as the pyramids of Egypt, older than anyone had thought possible.

JONATHAN HAAS: I was virtually in hysterics for three days afterwards.

NARRATOR: Caral was a thousand years older than Casma. it meant Casma could not be the mother city. it had to be Caral. It was now Caral's turn to be a sensation. The new mother city meant archaeologists could at last seek answers to their great question: why had civilisation begun?

KEN FEDER: We've eliminated some of these false starts and blind alleys. We say OK, this is the point that wherever we look in the world where civilisation develops this happens and this allows for everything else.

C.C. LAMBERG-KARLOVSKY: In the context of archaeology worldwide it is of major significance. It allows us a new, independent laboratory. We can look here for all of those common questions that we ask of every civilisation.

JONATHAN HAAS: We have here a unique opportunity, historically an unique opportunity to look at the start, to look at that transition, to, to, we have our missing link, if you will.

NARRATOR: Ruth could now show the world what a society looked like at the very dawn of civilisation. Her work revealed that at the heart of Caral was six pyramids arranged around a massive central plaza. Alongside them an amphitheatre and temple, the religious heart of Caral. it contained a furnace which Ruth believes fired a flame that was meant to burn forever. In the centre of the plaza were houses, some ornate, some simple. Dominating everything the main pyramid, seat of the city's rulers, and the symbol that the people of Caral had left behind the primitive life and discovered civilisation. This then is what modern society might have looked like at its very beginning, but why was the city here, why did civilisation start at Caral and that's when the trouble started. It began when Jonathan Haas, the world's expert on the warfare theory, paid another visit. He was searching for evidence to back it up. The first thing he thought he might find were battlements.

JONATHAN HAAS: I began walking and climbing all of the hillsides around Caral and it finally dawned on me that there weren't any fortifications round these sites.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Ruth and her team were searching Caral for weapons, for depictions of warfare, anything, but again there was nothing.

RUTH SHADY: We found no sign of the sort of weapons you see in later periods of history, like stone cudgels. I don't see any evidence of conflict. The city isn't walled, its inhabitants did not feel under any treat of war, there are no weapons of war.

NARRATOR: Haas was now extremely puzzled, so he widened his search. He headed to the valley's mouth through which any invaders would have had to pass.

JONATHAN HAAS: I was an approaching army that's where I'd come and that's where I should find defensive fortifications. There should be a wall going across it. They're easy places to put walls across all of these access routes.

NARRATOR: But again nothing.

JONATHAN HAAS: There should be something to slow down the enemy and in fact there's nothing. There are no fortifications round any of these sites.

NARRATOR: Jonathan Haas was now facing an uncomfortable truth. He had spent years pursuing the theory that warfare was the force that created civilisation and now it was falling apart in front of him.

JONATHAN HAAS: You seemed to really have the beginnings of that complex society and I'm able to look at it right at the start and I look for the conflict and I look for the warfare, I look for the armies and the fortifications and they're not there. They should be here and they're not and you have to change your whole mind-set about the role of warfare in these societies and so it's demolishing our warfare hypothesis. The warfare hypothesis just doesn't work.

NARRATOR: The message of Caral was clear: warfare had nothing to do with the creation of civilisation, here at least. The whole quest to find out why civilisation was formed would have to start again. The eyes of the world were now on Ruth. Everyone wanted to know what had been going on at Caral. If it wasn't warfare what was it that brought these people to build their magnificent city? What emerged was that Caral was a society that knew how to have fun. Near the main temple Ruth and her team found beautifully carved flutes made from the bones of condors.

RUTH SHADY: The flutes were the first things we found that showed people working as specialised craftsmen in Caral.

NARRATOR: But the people of Caral also enjoyed more worldly pleasures. back in the laboratory Ruth's team unearthed fragments of the fruit of something called the achiote plant. Even today, it's used by rainforest tribes as body paint and food colouring, but it has one other use: to enhance sexual performance. They also found the shells of a creature called the megabolinus snail. These were used as ornaments for necklaces and inside one of them they spotted traces of a mysterious white powder. It was lime. The team also found seeds from the coca plant at Caral and that meant drugs. The lime when mixed with the coca enhances the effects of the cocaine in the coca plant. It's a powerful stimulant.

RUTH SHADY: There are indications that they used drugs because we have found little containers in which there was some lime. We also found inhalers made out of bone.

NARRATOR: The shamans, or holy men, among certain Amazon tribes use something similar even today. The effects are dramatic. During the trance they believe they're possessed by animal spirits. Ruth believes this kind of thing could have been happening during festivals in Caral all those years ago.

RUTH SHADY: It's probable that during the very frequent religious ceremonies in Caral there would have been some hallucinatory drug present.

NARRATOR: But these finds told Ruth even more about Caral. The plant, the snail and even the flutes were a clue to the basis of the whole civilisation because they had one other very special quality. They were entirely alien to the deserts surrounding Caral. They came either from high in the Andes, or the rainforest and that was two hundred miles away. All these goods had been brought to Caral from far away, but why? The mystery deepened further. Ruth's team found that Caral didn't just import its pleasures. It also brought in the most basic commodity of all: food. It seemed the staple diet of Caral was completely bizarre for a city deep in the desert. It was fish. There were endless fish bones, mainly of sardines and anchovies. They could only have come from the Pacific coast more than 20 miles away. There was now a real puzzle. Goods of all kinds seemed to be flooding into Caral from all over Peru. Why? What was happening at Caral that drew them there? The mystery of Caral was now captivating Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer. Ever since the collapse of the warfare idea they'd roamed the valleys around Caral hunting for clues for an alternative theory. Their wanderings took them over the hills to the neighbouring valleys and it dawned on them all the valleys of Caral had one thing in common: rivers. Even today Caral is fed by rivers flowing down from the Andes to the sea. These rivers would be the key in unlocking the mystery of why civilisation first formed here at Caral because with rivers had come a huge technological advance: irrigation.

WINIFRED CREAMER: This is the simplest possible kind of irrigation system. All you needed to do was to take a hoe, or something like that, and scratch a little ditch from the river to a piece of land and you could tell that you were going at the right angle 'cos the water'd follow right in.

NARRATOR: The valleys near Caral are crisscrossed with ancient irrigation trenches and irrigation would have transformed the desert.

JONATHAN HAAS: Once I bring water off of that river to the Peruvian desert that desert blooms. Once I get water to it it just is the most productive land you could possibly hope for.

NARRATOR: Jonathan believed Caral was once a huge Garden of Eden. Here in the middle of the desert it would have been a vast oasis of fruit and vegetable fields. It would have made Caral one of the wonders of the Ancient World and irrigation led to something else, the thing that would turn out to be the crucial innovation behind the rise of civilisation at Caral. Ruth's researchers had begun to look for the kinds of vegetables the people of Caral had been eating. In amongst all the beans and nuts they found cotton seeds, lots of them. In fact cotton seemed to be everywhere.

RUTH SHADY: Practically every building contained cotton seeds or cotton fibres or textiles. We were very surprised at the beginning at the sheer amount of cotton.

NARRATOR: Some of the cotton was used for clothes, but it had another use that had nothing to do with Caral: fishing nets. This net was found at the coast not far from Caral. It's nearly 5,000 years old, as old as Caral itself. It was then that it all became clear to Ruth. Caral was engaged in trade. it made cotton nets for the fishermen who sent fish as payment.

RUTH SHADY: A trading link was established between the fishermen and the farmers. The farmers grew the cotton which the fishermen needed to make the nets and the fishermen gave them in exchange shellfish and dried fish.

NARRATOR: This was Ruth Shady's great insight. Trade in cotton led to a huge, self-sustaining system. Caral made the cotton for the nets. With the nets the fishermen could catch more food. More food meant more people could live at Caral to grow more cotton and so Caral became a booming trading centre and the trade spread. Goods have been found from as far away as Ecuador, the Andes and of course the rainforests hundreds of miles away.

RUTH SHADY: There is trade with people in the mountains, the jungle and also with the coastal people from further away. There is a trading network which is far more widespread than just the internal trade within the valleys around Caral.

NARRATOR: It seemed then that they'd found the answer to that great archaeological quest. The driving force that led to the birth of civilisation at Caral five thousand years ago was not warfare. it seemed to be trade. Ruth Shady, the archaeologist from Peru, had cracked it.

JONATHAN HAAS: It looks like exchange is what's unifying this system together and is kind of emerging as the most effective theory we have today to explain how this system developed.

NARRATOR: And amazingly this trade seems to have built a contented world. There were no battles, no fortresses. Civilisation in Peru appeared to have been born of a time of peace - or had it? Just as everything seemed to be solved, Ruth's team made a chance discovery that threatened to undermine everything. In one of the grander houses, perhaps home to one of the elite, they spotted something unusual.

RUTH SHADY: We thought we had finished work on this section. We looked at the floor and we didn't think there was anything else there, but when we came back the following day we noticed that there was a slight dip in one section of the floor of the building.

NARRATOR: At first they thought they'd found a personal object, perhaps an ornament. When they looked closer they could see it was a reed basket. It had lain under the floor of a house for nearly five thousand years. When Ruth cleaned the dust away she found something much more disturbing inside: human bones. They'd stumbled upon the body of a small child, perhaps even a baby. Suddenly it raised the frightening possibility. Perhaps the people of Caral started a tradition which was to be common in later civilisations in the Americas: human sacrifice. Perhaps Caral was not a civilisation of peace and happiness after all, perhaps it was brutal and held together not by trade, but fear. It became vital to find out how this child had died. Was it really a victim of some barbaric practice? The body was sent back to the labs for analysis and with it the objects found buried alongside. Ruth was surprised to see the baby had been placed in the foetal position before being buried and even more surprised to see the body had been carefully wrapped in several layers of fine cloth. Alongside the body were small stones. They'd been carefully polished and holes drilled through their centre. They had to be beads, perhaps of a necklace. Then they examined the bones. They were of a two month old baby and then, slowly, each bone was examined for signs of violence, but there were none. They suspected this child had died of natural causes. it had been lovingly prepared for burial. This first citizen of American civilisation was not a sacrifice, but a much loved child. Caral really had been a city of peace after all, so this is the real story of Caral. In the desert a city of pyramids arose built on riches gained peacefully through trade. It spawned a civilisation that lasted unbroken for more than four thousand years. It is a story that may yet contain the answer to archaeology's greatest question: why human beings crossed the great divide from the simple to the civilised?

RUTH SHADY: Caral was the first city with the first central government ever to be created. Caral changes all our current thinking about the origins of civilisation.

NARRATOR: Because it seems that five thousand years ago they had no need for warfare. Caral enjoyed a peace that lasted almost a millennium, an achievement unmatched in the modern world.

JONATHAN HAAS: That's a period of a thousand years of peace. I can't have a thousand years of peace if warfare's natural to human beings. Warfare's part of human nature. You don't get a millennium of no war.

NARRATOR: Perhaps that is Caral's real legacy. Human civilisation was not born in bloodshed and battle. Warfare was a later part of the human story. Great things can come from peace.

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