The Norte Chico region on the coast of Peru north of Lima consists of four adjacent river valleys—Huaura, Supe, Pativilca and Fortaleza—in which archaeologists have been aware of a number of apparently early sites for more than 40 years (refs 1– 3). To clarify the early chronology in this region, we undertook fieldwork in 2002 and 2003 to determine the dates of occupation of sites in the Fortaleza and Pativilca valleys. Here we present 95 new radiocarbon dates from a sample of 13 of more than 20 large, early sites. These sites share certain basic characteristics, including large-scale monumental architecture, extensive residential architecture and a lack of ceramics. The 95 new dates confirm the emergence and development of a major cultural complex in this region during the Late Archaic period between 3000 and 1800 calibrated calendar years bc. The results help to redefine a broader understanding of the respective roles of agricultural and fishing economies in the beginnings of civilization in South America.