Scientists say climate change hastened demise of Caral Latin America’s oldest civilization

Caral, the Americas’ oldest civilization, located north of present day Lima, Peru, faced a grave crisis as a result of climate change some 4,000 years ago, archaeologists said.

“Droughts were so severe that they could have lasted between 60 and 130 years, which could explain why there were social crises in (civilizations like) Caral, Moche and Tiahuanaco,” archaeologist Ruth Shady, director of the Caral Project, told Efe.

Women played leading roles in Caral and a team led by Shady has been working for eight years in Vichama, an urban center near the Vegueta district, in the northern province of Huaura, that archaeologists found looted and have restored.

“Vichama pertains to the last period in the formation of the Caral civilization, starting roughly 3000 B.C., but around 1900 B.C. there was a deep crisis that we are investigating, caused by climate change,” she said.

The conditions created a “deep crisis” in Caral and the site was abandoned, while, at the same time, around 1850 B.C., development was going on at Vichama “closer to the sea and a farming and fishing urban settlement,” Shady said.

Shady described Vichama as “a very interesting site” covering 20 hectares (49.3 acres), with 10 buildings, one of which has reliefs on the façade depicting an Andean cross.

“They have or show cultural elements from the Caral civilization and other new and peculiar to this valley’s culture, like columns with ledges and reliefs that you don’t find in Caral,” the archaeologist said.

There is a building in Vichama “that shows also the Caral architectural tradition” and the impact of climate change, which appears to have caused famines, is depicted “in spectacular representations in relief of human beings,” Shady said.

“There are 18 anthropomorphic figures in a sequence between two fish, with characters depicted, some upside down, full frontal and in profile, as if involved in a ritual dance, their bodies ravished by hunger, with the stomachs sunken,” Shady said.

At the bottom of the composition, “there is another sequence of 16 starving adults, as if dead, between two corpses seen in profile with their eyes closed,” Shady said. “It is like a symbolic representation of what was going on in the society.”

In the same building, although pertaining to later occupants, researchers recently found figurines in unbaked clay depicting anthropomorphic beings, among them and prominent is a woman whose image was also found in the city of Caral.

Shady said this “indicates that between 1900 B.C. and the Inca era, women had a leading role in society both in the realm of religion and in political authority.”



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