AN ADVANCED civilisation was thriving on the coast of modern-day Peru at the same time as the pyramids were built in Egypt – more than 1,000 years earlier than was previously thought, American researchers have discovered.

New radio-carbon dating of plant fibres found at Caral, 120 miles north of Lima, has revealed that the ancient city was built as early as 2600BC, making it by far the oldest urban settlement yet identified in the Americas.

The findings, published today in the journal Science, suggest that the significance of the Caral civilisation has been badly underestimated by archaeologists and anthropologists.

The inhabitants of the city had developed technology on a par with much of that found in ancient Egypt at about the same time they had the know-how to irrigate fields and to build monumental pyramids, though they never learnt to make ceramic pottery, a fact that continues to puzzle anthropologists. Jonathan Haas, curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, who led the study, said Caral had previously been dated to about 1600BC. “Our findings show that a very large, complex society had risen on the coast of Peru centuries earlier than anyone thought, “ Dr Haas said.

“This is a project that comes along once in a generation and offers opportunities rarely glimpsed in the field of archaeology.”

Caral is dominated by a central zone containing six large platform mounds arranged around a huge public plaza. The largest of these mounds, known as Piramide Mayor, stands 60ft high and measures 450ft by 500ft at its base.

All six central mounds were built in only one or two phases, providing strong evidence of complex planning, centralised decision-making and mobilisation of a large labour force- all of which suggest an advanced civilisation.

Stairs, rooms, courtyards and other structures were constructed on top of the pyramids as well as on the side terraces.

Excavations are now planned to determine whether there were rooms or tombs inside the mounds. Other architecture at the site also indicates a high level of cultural complexity. In particular, three sunken circular plazas testify to the emergence of a well-organised religion with open, public ceremonies. Other villages in Peru are known to have been occupied before 2600BC and some even had small-scale public platforms or stone rings. All, however, are much smaller in scale.

By Mark Henderson, The Times

Ancient Technology Index