Position: 10° 48’ S and 77° 44’ W
Weather: Grey and cool in the morning, changed to blue sky and bright sunlight by noon.
It was an early breakfast for most people this morning. Disembarkation was at 7:15 am and landing ashore involved crossing from a Zodiac into an old barge, then stepping onto a floating dock in order to catch a gangway on wheels careening along the horizontal surface. Everyone was careful and took their time—so it is a fun memory.
Three mini-buses met us in the port and we loaded up for the trip to the Ancient City of Caral. It was fascinating to drive down the highway crossing verdant, green, river valleys intersecting the stark, sand and rock of the Atacama Desert. In the valleys, small, trickling, hand-dug irrigation canals fed from large cement-lined canals surrounded each farm and field.
We eventually turned east onto a dirt road and began a winding journey through a spectacular, almost vegetation-free landscape of mountains and sand dunes. A section of the valley was filled with long, white, chicken hatcheries, and our bus was sprayed with an antibacterial wash before we entered. After that it was straight to the ruins, which, from a distance, were hard to distinguish from natural hills and gullies.
We arrived at Caral on the annual anniversary of work at the site, which commenced in 1996 under the directorship of Ruth Shady. Its atmosphere was festive, with a small indigenous market and Peruvian folkloric music played over a loudspeaker. School children, brought from their schools to appreciate their prehistoric heritage, crowded around us practicing their English.
Caral is an impressive site with 32 monumental structures. Its great age of approximately 2,600 BC, based on the radiocarbon dating of baskets used to carry and deposit the fill in the pyramids’ walls, astounded the scientific community in 2001. Caral’s large pyramids implied intensive agriculture, surplus labour and a stratified society with a permanent political elite, several hundred years earlier than its occurrence in other regions of the Andean area.
Our guide took us to the side of Caral overlooking the fertile Supe river valley and told us that there were at least 19 other pyramid sites in the area, but that Caral was probably the capital. Caral flourished by trading for sea products—fish and shellfish—with people at the coast, growing their own crops using intensive irrigation agriculture, and trading with peoples in the foothills and alpine areas. Estimates put the entire valley population at perhaps 20,000 and Caral itself at 3,000. Artefacts found at the site include 32 flutes made from condor and pelican bones, 37 cornets made of deer and llama bones and some knotted string that some researchers think might be a very early quipu (Incan tally system using strings and knots).
On the drive home our botanist, Toby, insisted that the mini-vans stop along the road so that he and anyone else interested could photograph the desert-adapted vegetation. Almost everyone got out and the Peruvian guides and drivers looked astounded as over forty passengers and staff bent, crouched, and huddled over broken rocks harbouring cacti and other succulents, flashes firing and shutters clicking.
Back at the harbour, the ocean swell had increased and embarkation was even more “interesting” than disembarkation, but once again the stoic resolve of everyone ensured that a “good time was had by all.” At evening recap, Robin, Toby and I covered the adventures of embarkation, the succulent plants, and the site of Caral.