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New insight into ancient Americans

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Archaeologists have uncovered fresh evidence of a civilization more than 5,000 years old in Norte Chico.
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(CNN) -- New research has shown that the oldest civilization in the Americas was far more complex than previously imagined.

Ancient Americans settled in the Norte Chico region of Andean Peru more than 5,000 years ago, abandoning hunter-gathering and quickly developing a society that featured monumental architecture, agriculture, housing and a barter-based economy, recent archaelogical excavations have revealed.

The Norte Chico civilization existed for roughly 1,200 years from around 3,000 BC and spread to include 20 major residential centers across 700 square miles, according to the work of a team led by Professor Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago and his wife Professor Winifred Creamer, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University.

The pair's research, based on new radiocarbon datings from excavation samples, was published this month in the scientific journal Nature.

The importance of Norte Chico, a dry and inhospitable region 100 miles north of Lima, has been largely overlooked in the past because of the absence of ancient artifacts or treasures, art or writing. Unlike other ancient civilizations, its inhabitants failed to develop ceramics.

But Haas and Creamer said their work proved the existence of a widespread and thriving community.

At the same time that the Egyptians were building pyramids, the ancient Andeans were beginning to construct momuments of their own. Each of the sites studied by Haas and Creamer's team featured large platform mounds where rectangular terraced stone pyramids would have stood.

They also uncovered evidence of circular plazas and houses built from adobe, wooden poles, cane and mud. Radiocarbon dating performed on plant remains showed that reed and wild cane were woven into bags to carry rocks to construction sites.

"This wasn't a single site where people were doing something really unusual, but a whole region, a whole culture, where people were organized to produce large pyramids and sunken plazas -- something the Americas hadn't seen before," said Creamer.

"The people who built the first of these structures had no model to go by, no precedent to use in building a monument. It's a bit like deciding to build a functioning spaceship in your back yard, and succeeding."

Haas and Creamer also said their work challenged existing assumptions that early Andean development was driven by a maritime culture.

Early communal large-scale construction, between 3,200 BC and 2,000 BC took place both inland and on the coast. But subsequent centuries were characterized by the occupation of inland sites watered by irrigation canals, which enabled the growth of cotton and food plants such as squash, beans and avocadoes.

But inland settlements and coastal communities remained economically linked by a system of regular exchange. Shellfish and fishbones have been recovered inland, where inhabitants also ate anchovies and in return provided cotton for fishing nets.

As well as lacking pottery, art and writing, the Norte Chico civilization also differed from other ancient cultures in its lack of dependency on a staple grain crop.

"This early culture appears to have developed not only without pottery, arts and crafts but also without a staple grain-based food, which is usually the first large-scale agricultural product of complex societies," said Creamer. "The ancient Peruvians took a different path to civilization."

Haas and Creamer hope further excavations will uncover more about the life in the communities of Norte Chico. They also hope to explain how civilization developed in such a harsh environment and why it came to an end.

"Why did this happen here of all places? It's not a particularly easy environment, but the big moment may have been when someone discovered that irrigation wasn't that difficult," said Creamer.

"You can use irrigation to explain both the rise and fall of the Norte Chico region. By 1,800 B.C., when this civilization is in decline, we begin to find extensive canals farther north. People were moving to more fertile ground and taking their knowledge of irrigation with them. The Norte Chico ultimately became something of a frontier zone between northern and southern centers of influence and political development."

But Haas and Creamer are convinced that Norte Chico was the crucible of American civilization.

"The scale and sophistication of these sites is unheard of anywhere in the New World at this time, and almost any time," said Haas.

"The cultural pattern that emerged in this small area in the third millennium B.C. later established a foundation for 4,000 years of cultural florescence in other parts of the Andes."

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