The City of Caral in the Supe Valley is the Americas first known city. To give a frame of reference, it lasted an equivalent time period to the death of Christ until today.
The Supe seemed to thrive in the valley for about 2,000 years. But around 3,600 years ago, an enormous earthquake -- Moseley estimates its magnitude at 8 or higher -- or series of earthquakes struck Caral and a nearby coastal settlement, Aspero, the archaeologist found…
The full pdf above has some excellent photographs and illustrations of the geo-architectural evidence and is very much recommended. My excerpts are from the press release and thus are somewhat of a teaser.
I first hear of this empire in:
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
First came the earthquakes, then the torrential rains. But the relentless march of sand across once fertile fields and bays, a process set in motion by the quakes and flooding, is probably what did in America's earliest civilization.
So concludes a group of anthropologists in a new assessment of the demise of the coastal Peruvian people who built the earliest, largest structures in North or South America before disappearing in the space of a few generations more than 3,600 years ago.
From Earthquakes, El Ninos Fatal To Earliest Civilization In Americas ScienceDaily (Jan. 20, 2009)
The City of Caral,…confirmed as the oldest city in the Americas, Caral has shattered the myth that civilization got a late start in the New World. Nearly 5,000 years ago, around the time that Sumerians developed writing and before Egyptians built the Great Pyramid at Giza, people… in the Supe River Valley began building a city.
They knew nothing about writing and had no knowledge of ceramics. But they planned and built huge public works, evolved a specialized and stratified society, and developed a sophisticated and diversified economy…They fished with nets, irrigated fruit orchards, and grew cotton and a variety of vegetables.
Most impressively, the Supe built extremely large, elaborate, stone pyramid temples -- thousands of years before the better-known pyramids crafted by the Maya. The largest so far excavated, the Pirámide Mayor at inland settlement Caral, measured more than 550 feet long, nearly 500 feet wide and rose in a series of steps nearly 100 feet high. Walled courts, rooms and corridors covered the flat summit.
A civilization arises because it controls something important. Mesopotamia prospered once it irrigated the desert and produced an abundance of food. Caral diverted water from the Supe River to irrigate fields, growing staples such as squash and beans. But its secret weapon may have been cotton. By growing cotton, used to make fishing nets, the people of Caral could trade for fish with the communities on the Pacific coast 12 miles away. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of fish bones.
The community also traded with communities in the jungle farther inland and, apparently, with people from the mountains…. The Supe Valley hosts other communities, some of them much older and some within view of the city itself, but none of them approaches the scale and sophistication of this city.
By Laurent Belsie, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 2002 http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0103/p11s1-woam.html
The earthquake collapsed walls and floors atop the Pirámide Mayor and caused part of it to crumble into a landslide of rocks, mud and construction materials. Smaller temples at Aspero were also heavily damaged, and there was also significant flooding there, an event recorded in thin layers of silt unearthed by the archaeologists…
The earthquake destabilized the barren mountain ranges surrounding the valley, sending massive amounts of debris crashing into the foothills. Subsequent El Niños brought huge rains, washing the debris into the ocean. There, a strong current flowing parallel to the shore re-deposited the sand and silt in the form of a large ridge known today as the Medio Mundo. The ridge sealed off the formerly rich coastal bays, which rapidly filled with sand.
Strong ever-present onshore winds resulted in "massive sand sheets that blew inland on the constant, strong, onshore breeze and swamped the irrigation systems and agricultural fields," the paper says. Not only that, but the windblown sand had a blasting effect that would have made daily life all but impossible, Moseley said.
The bottom line: What had for centuries been a productive, if arid, region became all but uninhabitable in the span of just a handful of generations. The Supe society withered and eventually collapsed, replaced only gradually later on -- by societies that relied on the much more modern arts of pottery and weaving, Moseley said.
With much of the world's population centers built in environmentally vulnerable areas, the Supe's demise may hold a cautionary tale for modern times, the researchers said. El Niño events, in particular, may become more common as global climate change continues.
"These are processes that continue into the present," said Dan Sandweiss, the paper's lead author and an anthropology professor and graduate dean at the University of Maine.
Affirmed Moseley, "You would like to say that people learn from their mistakes, but that's not the case."
Authors Mosley and SandweissFrom Earthquakes, El Ninos Fatal To Earliest Civilization In Americas ScienceDaily (Jan. 20, 2009)