Thursday, July 17, 2008


(Caral Temple and Amphitheater complex)

A few nights ago, I watched a BBC documentary called The Lost Pyramids of Caral.

Between 6000 and 5000 years ago, human beings crossed what is referred to as The Great Divide, changing the simple way of life they had lived for at least 100,000 years, subsistence hunting and gathering in small family assemblages, to that of urban areas with at least five shared characteristics: Numbers and/or writing, pottery, metallurgy, monumental architecture, and defenses against warfare. These first cities required leadership and organized planning to build and maintain. They are known to have first appeared in Egypt, Mesopotomia (Iraq), India, Central America, and China. As the documentary stated, "Civilization was not inevitable. Without these pioneers crossing that great divide our modern world would not exist."

At least, that was the prevailing theory until recent excavation and dating at Caral in Peru have thrown some of these long-accepted "truths" into question. Caral is a complex of six large pyramids and many smaller pyramids in the Supe Valley, 20 miles into the desert from the coast. The main city of Caral covers 65 hectares and includes two massive circular plazas, temples, amphitheaters, residential zones, and a surrounding farm district thoroughly irrigated by the Supe River. Other valleys nearby also show evidence of irrigation and farming, although Caral remains the urban center of the region. Caral's population was perhaps 3000, and the total population of it plus the 17 other nearby sites has been estimated at 20,000.

(The Supe Valley, Peru, image from The Archeology Channel)

Caral was discovered by Ruth Shady (Solis), Ph.D., a Peruvian anthropologist and archeologist who set out to find a "mother city", an urban area so early that other known civilizations likely arose from it. Nobody, including her, expected the reality of Caral.

(Map of Caral, image from The Archeology Channel)

It had been believed that all the early civilizations of Peru depended on immediate proximity to the coast, with its supply of food, for inception. Caral is too far from the ocean to fit this "maritime" theory. Further, Caral to date has shown no signs of pottery or metal artifacts. There does appear to be quipu, a form of record-keeping using knotted strings, so mathematics is in evidence. And there are, of course, the enormous pyramids (rivaling anything in Egypt in size) and other structures. But no battlements, no fortifications, no defensive walls of any kind: Caral existed in utter peace. For over a thousand years. And -- the ultimate shocker -- it has been dated to almost 5000 years ago, older not only than any other settlement in the Americas but also predating the pyramids in Egypt. Caral is 1000 years older than Machu Picchu and 3200 years older than anything built by the Mayans.

How did the people of Caral accomplish their magnificent feat? One clue is that the agriculture produced great quantities of cotton. This was used for trade, especially when it was woven into nets. The fisher folk of the coast were eager to obtain good nets, and in exchange Caral got all the fish protein it wanted. But the trade seems to have extended as far as the Amazon -- there are images of monkeys at Caral, and remnants of coca plus other hallucinogens from the jungles thousands of miles distant.

(Caral pyramids)

The quipu may be another clue, one which likely remain unreadable. According to poet Arthur Sze, "Quipu was a tactile recording device for the pre-literate Inca, an assemblage of colored knots on cords...Quipu means knot in Quechua, the native language of the Andes. The Incas had a system of accounting and data recording that relied on the quipu, a devise in which cords of various colors were attached to a main cord with knots. The number and position of knots as well as the color of each cord represented information about commercial goods and resources. Quipu-makers were responsible for encoding and decoding the information. The messages included information about resources in storehouses, taxes, census information, the output of mines, or the composition of work forces. Archeologists have recently suggested that authors used the quipu to compose and preserve poems and legends. Because there were relatively few words in Quechua, the cords of a quipu could be used as pronunciation keys."

In "The Angle of Reflection Equals the Angle of Incidence," Sze writes:

Quinoa simmers in a pot; the aroma of cilantro
on swordfish; the cusp of spring when you

lean your head on my shoulder. Orange crocuses
in the backyard form a line. Once is a scorched site;

we stoop in the grass, finger twelve keys with

interconnected rings on a swiveling yin-yang coin,
dangle them from the gate, but no one claims them.

Perhaps it is the poet in me, but I can well imagine these string recording devices evolving, as clay tablets with cuneiform did in Mesopotamia, into the culture's repository of story, lineage, and imagination. It is telling that all recovered quipus from other sites have been from graves -- clearly they were more than simply an accounting of grain. But Caral has many contradictions to the "warfare" theory of civilization. Wikipedia states "Shady's findings suggest it was a gentle society, built on commerce and pleasure. In one of the pyramids, they uncovered 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones and 37 cornets of deer and llama bones. They also found evidence of drug use and possibly aphrodisiacs. One find revealed the remains of a baby, wrapped and buried with a necklace made of stone beads."

An article in the Christian Science Monitor reports about the discovery of Caral: "Here in Peru, their discovery evokes mixed emotions from the archaeologists who work the site and the rural people who live around it. There's pride, certainly, but also puzzlement. 'The campesinos always ask: Why did our ancestors have the capacity to build such an important city, and we live so poorly and don't have the ability to do similar things?' says Dr. Shady... The answer 'is very difficult for me.'"

The answer to what happened to the later great civilization, the Incas, built on the shoulders of what began at Caral can be summed up in one word: Pizarro.


The same Christian Science Monitor article explains:

"To raise money, Shady agreed to work with Jonathan Haas, curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, and his wife, Winifred Creamer, anthropologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The pair helped Shady get several Caral samples radiocarbon-dated in the United States, which proved the site dates back to at least 2600 BC, as Shady suspected. (The city probably is older, she contends, because the dated samples didn't come from the oldest parts of the excavations.) The three then coauthored an article on Caral.

"But relations cooled after the article appeared last April in Science magazine. The American press quoted Drs. Haas and Creamer extensively, making it appear they were leading the team even though their work at the site was limited to collecting the samples for dating. And US funds never materialized.

"Haas did propose $50,000 in support if Shady would agree to let him and his wife pursue their research in the area. She refused.

"'I think it's an ... unequal relationship,' she says. 'There are many benefits for the professionals abroad.' Little, if any, trickles down to local archaeologists. Haas points out that the US government will only fund archaeological research abroad if an American plays a lead role.

"'There are always problems with this kind of arrangement,' says Betty Meggers, a research associate and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution who has worked for years with Shady and other Latin American archaeologists. 'North Americans are always going to be dominant.'

[If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.]

"'There's a problem of self-identification in the country,' Shady answers when locals ask her why Peru is so backward today. When Caral flourished, 'the society was organized with a population that worked to do things collectively for the collective good. But with the rupture from the arrival of the Spaniards [3,500 years later], there was no more interest in the country except as a source of minerals to be exported to Spain.'

Even after the colonizers were thrown out, she says, 'our leaders, generally because of problems of identity and self-esteem, believed that everything from abroad was good. Never again did they try to understand the country from its geography, from its history, from its social problems.'"

Fifteen years ago I was close friends with a woman whose father was Guatemalan. One night we had a sleepover and right before dropping off, we read aloud to each other from Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez:

"On the eight of November, 1519, Hernando Cortes and four hundred Spanish soldiers...approached the Aztec Byzantium --Tenochtitlan, Mexico City. The city was scattered with great aviaries where thousands of birds -- white egrets, energetic wrens and thrushes, fierce accipiters, brilliantly colored parrots -- were housed and tended. They were captivating, as fabulous, as the displays of flowers: vermilion flycatchers, coppertailed trogons, green jays, blue-throated hummingbirds, and summer tanagers. Great blue herons, brooding condors.

"Three months later, Cortes's psychological manipulation of Montezuma and a concomitant arrogance, greed, and disrespect on the part of the Spanish military force had become too much for the Mexicans, and they drove them out. Eleven months later a vengeful Cortes returned to lay siege to the city. Canal by canal, garden by garden, home by home he destroyed what he had described to Charles V as 'the most beautiful city in the world.' On June 16, in a move calculated to humiliate and frighten the Mexican people, Cortes set fire to the aviaries. "

That night, I dreamed I could time travel. I often have this type of dream; it is linked to my political activism. In this particular dream, I ferried big black helicopters and automatic weapons to Moctezuma in October 1519 and to Lakota in South Dakota during 1875. I stuck around with the Lakota a while to teach them how to use this new technology. I was under no illusions that other Indians in Central Mexico and on the North American Plains would not be attacked by their newly armed neighbors. But it would stop European conquest of the New World; it would stop my desperate Scots ancestors in their tracks, confine them to the Eastern seaboard, halt genocide and Manifest Destiny.

When I woke up, I told my friend about the dream. She fixed her black eyes on me and said "If I could time travel, I'd go murder Columbus. That would mean I never came to exist, but it would be worth it. If I could force Euope to sit in its cesspool and deal with its own pathology there and then instead of 'doing a geography' -- if I could postpone the slave trade for even a hundred years, it would be worth it to have my entire lineage vanish."

We, of course, don't have time travel. Europe's pathology was transplanted to the New World and it is ours now. I no longer dream about helicopters or, like Bruce Cockburn, rocket launchers as a means of setting things right. Like Billy Kwan, I daily ask "What then must we do?", but unlike Billy, I am no longer seeking the big lever that will dislodge the wheel from its rumbling track; I am, in particular, not planning to die for the cause. Living for the cause is much harder, and not nearly as cinematic.

I am willing to learn the lessons my ancestors avoided by agreeing to steal native land and support an economy whose wealth depended on human enslavement. Because I am poor, from generations of unending poverty, I believe this carries some additional weight when I talk to other poor Southern whites about how we are, even so, advantaged by classism and racism. I talk about reparations, in all its forms. To even consider amends is a quantum leap forward.

I also love the men of my class and race. Bubbas are a favorite distraction target of the patriachy, whether they are (often accurately) used as footsoldiers of daily violence, especially toward women, or romanticized/sexualized by corporate-controlled media (and all those other forms of masculinity worship, especially problematic in the queer community) as a means of keeping us from seeing the real pain of their existence. As I love them, I insist they clean up their goddamned act. If a dirt poor woman with several children and no decent dress in which to leave the house can manage to get through the day without alcohol or abuse toward her family, then the men can, too. It is learned behavior; there is no place on our genes which says rape and slapping around is coded XY.

At the dawn of human civilization, we played flutes, grew cotton, mourned our dead infants, and figured out a way to build dazzling monuments in the desert, in peace and plenty. That's the truth of Caral. If you have a hard time believing it, consider why and rasp away those rough spots. We are all descended from people like them. What's your next step in reclaiming that reality for yourself?


Official Caral website

The Lost Pyramids of Caral, transcript of BBC television show

The Mother of All Civilizations

New York Times article on Caral

Caral: Ancient Peru city reveals 5,000-year-old 'writing'

Interview with Dr. Ruth Shady at The Archeology Channel

No comments: