Author of the Month

Enter the Jaguar (cont.)
By Mike Jay

It was out of this seasonally nomadic coastal culture, shuttling between the arid coasts and the fertile mountain valleys, that the first monumental sites emerged. Dates are still being revised, but are now firmly set some time before 2000BC. The sites may have been used much earlier as huacas, natural sacred spots, around which ceremonial stone and adobe structures gradually accreted and expanded. Caral, a massive site a hundred miles north of Lima where substantial excavation is finally under way, is perhaps an example of this process. Its sprawling complex of dusty mounds centres on a megalith, perhaps originally upended into the valley by an earthquake; from the vantage point of this stone the oldest pyramid precisely mirrors the peak of the mountain which towers over it, suggesting that the megalith may have been the original focus for this alignment. The pyramids, at Caral as elsewhere, seem to have begun as raised platforms for fire-pits, which were subsequently extended upward in layers as the site grew to accomodate increasing human traffic. Below Caral’s pyramids is another feature which would endure for millennia and spread from the coast to the high mountains: a sunken circular plaza, large enough for a gathering of several hundred participants, with steps leading up to the platform of the pyramid above.

This plaza-and-pyramid layout, reproduced in dozens of sites spanning hundreds of miles and thousands of years, seems to have evolved for a ceremonial purpose, but there’s still little consensus about what this might have entailed. Beyond the general problem of reconstructing systems of meaning and belief from stone, these early sites are sparse in cultural materials. Graves are few, and simple; the early monumental building predates the firing of pottery (hence the archaeological term for the era, ‘Preceramic’). There’s little general evidence of human habitation, although there are some chambers in the Caral pyramids which may have housed those who attended the site. Some scholars have sought to cast these as a ‘priestly elite’, ruling caste of a stratified society, but they may equally have been no more than a class of specialist functionaries without particularly exalted status in the community. Certainly a site like Caral would have been no prize residence: it’s not a palace at the centre of a subjugated settlement so much as a monastic perch on its desolate fringes. Its barren, windswept desert setting overlooks a fertile valley, taking up none of the precious irrigated terrain.

The size of the complex suggests that the fertile valley attracted visitors, and that Caral was a site of pilgrimage for more than its local community. The earliest agriculture on the coast emerged in such valleys, especially cotton and gourds, which were used for making fishing nets and floats: it may be, therefore, that the ceremonial site grew in size as the use of these cultivated commodities spread ever more widely through the loose network of fishing communities up and down the coast. This would suggest a very different picture from the one presented by better-known pristine civilisations such as Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley, where archaeologists have tended to associate the origins of monumental architecture with the control of complex power relations – a centralised state, coercive labour, irrigation systems, a powerful priestcraft or mililary might. Peru seems to tell a rather different story: one of structures emerging largely unplanned, piecemeal and over generations, within a shifting, stateless network of hunter-gatherers.

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