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Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico region in Peru

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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.
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Dating the Late Archaic occupation of
the Norte Chico Region in Peru
Jonathan Haas
1
*, Winifred Creamer
2
* & Alvaro Ruiz
2
*
1
Department of Anthropology, The Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois 60605, USA
2
Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois
60115, USA
* These authors contributed equally to this work
.............................................................................................................................................................................
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 field-
work 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, includ-
ing 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.
The Norte Chico region has greatly influenced the development
of theories on the rise of complex societies in South America.
Fieldwork done in the 1970s and 1980s
4–7
at the site of Aspero at the
mouth of the Supe Valley showed that this fishing community was
occupied during the Late Archaic period
8
. With its several platform
mound structures, Aspero inspired the theor y that the initial
emergence of complex society in the Andes was based on the
exploitation of maritime resources rather than agriculture, a theory
often referred to as the ‘maritime foundations of Andean civiliza-
tion
3,5
. In the 1980s the first dates for a number of large inland sites
in the Supe Valley suggested that these sites were occupied during
the Late Archaic period
9
. Extensive excavations in the 1990s at
the Supe Valley site of Caral
10
firmly established the presence of a
major inland, agriculturally based, component to the Late Archaic
occupation in the Norte Chico
11,12
.
Our recent work in the neighbouring Pativilca and Fortaleza has
revealed that Caral and Aspero were but two of a much larger
number of major Late Archaic sites in the Norte Chico. There is now
evidence of an extraordinary complex of more than 20 separate
major residential centres with monumental architecture concen-
trated in just three small valleys (Fig. 1).
To complement the earlier work in the Supe Valley and assess the
overall extent of the Late Archaic occupation in the Norte Chico, we
began fieldwork in the Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys in 2002 and
2003. Our limited reconnaissance in these two valleys identified at
Q1
least 16 sites with surface characteristics of Late Archaic occu-
pations: a lack of ceramics, monumental stone architecture and
large circular ceremonial structures
12,13
. These sites vary in size from
ten to more than 100 hectares in area. Each has between one and
seven platform mounds. The mounds, rectangular terraced pyra-
mids, range in size from 3,000 to over 100,000 m
3
(Fig. 2). Rooms
were constructed on the tops and upper terraces of the structures.
Another hallmark of Late Archaic sites is the sunken circular plaza.
These plazas range from 20 to 40 m in diameter and are 1–2 m
deep
14
. The sites also had large expanses of associated residential
architecture, as manifested in surface indications and in stratified
house floors in test pits. Excavations revealed stratified household
refuse 50 to 200 cm deep. Importantly, the sites are consistently
located immediately adjacent to short irrigation canals watering
large tracts of land in the first terrace immediately above the river
bottom.
Test excavations were conducted at a sample of 13 of the sites in
the Pativilca (seven sites) and Fortaleza valleys (six sites). These
excavations were designed to yield suitable material for radiocarbon
dating from successive events of mound construction and from
stratified levels of resid ential refuse. The 95 r adiocarbon dates
(Table 1) obtained from excavations confirmed that 11 of the 13
tested sites were occupied during the Late Archaic period (Fig. 2).
When the 95 new dates are added to the existing published dates
from previous projects, there is a combined total of 127 radiocarbon
dates available for the Norte Chico region, extending from 9210 to
186 calibrated calendar years
BC (cal. BC). Both the earlier and later
ends of this range are under-represented in this sample owing to a
research focus on sites most likely to fall into the period from 3000
to 1800 cal.
BC.
Ten samples date before 3500 cal.
BC. One early date of 9210 cal.
BC provides limited indication of an Early Archaic occupation. The
remaining nine dates confirm occupation in the region both on the
coast and at inland locations between 6300 and 3500 cal.
BC during
the Middle Archaic period. Two of the early dates, 3710 cal.
BC at
Aspero
7
and 3710 cal. BC at Porvenir are directly associated with
communal architecture. The single date from Aspero is considered
an anomaly
6
and the date from Porvenir, although deduced from
construction material, is 700 years earlier than the next closest date.
Thus it should not be inferred on the basis of these two isolated dates
that mound construction had started in the fourth millennium
BC.
The succeeding 700 years, between 3200 and 2500 cal.
BC, with 27
dates, marks the clear appearance of large-scale communal con-
Figure 1 Map of major Late Archaic sites in the Norte Chico region.
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struction and population aggregation in the Norte Chico region.
Dated samples from this period have been found in direct associ-
ation with the construction or occupation of platform mounds at
Aspero
6
, Caral
10
and Lurihuasi
9
in the Supe Valley, at Upaca in the
Pativilca Valley and at Huaricanga, Porvenir and Caballete in the
Fortaleza Valley. The dates at Aspero fit well within the range of
dates for the inland sites and indicate that the first construction of
communal architecture occurs at both inland and coastal sites at the
very beginning of the third millennium
BC. On the basis of this new
evidence, it is not feasible to view the maritime development at
Aspero as having preceded the large-scale inland occupations. Given
the significant and ongoing destruction of these early sites, includ-
ing the use of Aspero as a modern landfill, it is unlikely that which
site was ‘first’ can ever be known. What is clear from the new body of
dates is that the early development of complex societies along the
Peruvian coast in the Late Archaic involved an extensive inland
occupation based on irrigation agriculture coupled with a more
localized and much smaller-scale maritime occupation on the coast
15
.
The period from 2500 to 2000 cal.
BC, represented by 61 dates,
marks a considerable expansion of the Late Archaic occupation in
the Norte Chico region. This was when most of the platfor m
mounds were constructed, as shown by dates in this range from
thirteen sites. The proliferation of sites during this period is
lopsided, however, in that all the development was inland. The
available dates from Aspero come only from the beginning of this
period
6
. The large number and size of inland sites in the Norte
Chico, all continuing to be dependent on fish and shellfish, is hard
to reconcile with the scarcity of maritime sites in the same area. It
therefore seems likely that residents maintained exchange relation-
ships with maritime communities outside the Norte Chico region.
At the end of the Late Archaic and into the Initial Period, with 18
dates from 2000 to ,1500 cal.
BC, some sites continued to be
occupied and new sites were founded. Large multi-mound sites,
typical of the preceding millennium, were abandoned and two
new site types appear: single platform complexes with attached
sunken plazas, and U-shaped mound complexes. The nature and
chronology of the later occupations in the Norte Chico remain to be
defined.
The new dates for the Norte Chico Late Archaic provide insig hts
into the intensity and longevity of this early development. It is now
clear that Aspero, Caral and the sites in the Supe Valley were parts of
a much more extensive cultural system that reached across at least
three valleys and an area of 1,800 km
2
. The concentration of
monumental sites in the region is unique on the Andean landscape
during the third millennium
BC. The clustering of dates at the start
of the third millennium
BC also suggests that the Norte Chico was an
important historical location, where the path of cultural evolution
in the Andean region diverged from a relatively simple hunting and
Figure 2 Late Archaic communal architecture. a, Aerial photograph of Punta y Suela in
the Patavilca Valley taken in 1969 (mound A in lower left is 60 m £ 50 m £ 12 m).
b, Mounds A (left, 85 m £ 74 m £ 23 m) and B (right) at Vinto Alto in Pativilca Valley.
c, Overview of central ceremonial zone at Porvenir in Fortaleza valley (open plaza area
between mounds is 500 m across). d, Circle of stone stela or huancas at site of Caballete
in Fortaleza Valley.
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gathering society to a much more complex pattern of social and
political organization with a mixed economy based on agriculture
and marine exploitation. Domesticated plants recovered include
cotton (Gossypium barbadense), squash (Cucurbita sp.), chilli
(Capsicum sp.), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris and P. lunatus), lucuma
(Pouteria lucuma,formerlyLucuma obovata), guava (Psidium
guajava), pacay (Inga feuillei), camote (Ipomoea batatas), avocado
(Persea americana), and achira (Canna edulis). While the nature of
Late Archaic society is still being defined, there are indications of
social hierarchies, centralized decision-making, formalized religion,
and a multifaceted economy based on inland irrigation of cotton
and food plants, diverse marine resources, and a system of regular
exchange of food crops, cotton, fish and shellfish
6,9,15
.
The new dates establish that the people in this region were a
significant force on the Andean cultural landscape for more than
1,200 years. By 1800 cal.
BC the Norte Chico was losing its status as a
focal point on the Andean landscape. Much larger polities
were arising to the north and south along the coast as well as
in the highlands to the east. However, basic architectural and
organizational patterns first appearing in the third millennium in
the Norte Chico prov ided a foundation for many underly ing
similarities that define the distinctiveness of the Andean region in
the succeeding 4,000 years. A
Methodology
Survey areas and site sampling
The Pativilca Valley extends 35 km from the coast until it narrows markedly to enter the
foothills of the Andes. Today, there are approximately 140 km
2
of land under irrigation. At
the mouth of the valley it is hard to distinguish the arable land of Pativilca from that of
Supe and Fortaleza, because the three share a common coastal plain. The Pativilca Valley
has never been systematically surveyed, and there have been only limited, unpublished
excavations at a small number of sites. The Fortaleza Valley extends 46 km from its mouth
at the Pacific shoreline to the town of Chasquitambo where it narrows to enter the foothills
of the Andes. Approximately 115 km
2
of land are under irrigated fields today.
In 1996 an archaeological survey of the middle portion of the Fortaleza Valley floor,
between 20 and 1,600 m above sea level, was conducted in conjunction with construction
of a power line
13
. None of the sites recorded on this survey were immediately recognized as
belonging to the Late Archaic period. Reconnaissance in 2000, 2001 and 2002 revealed
nine sites in the Pativilca Valley and eight sites in the Fortaleza Valley with all the hallmarks
of the Late Archaic: monumental architecture, circular plazas, residential architecture and
incidental surface ceramics. To obtain dates from the sites that appeared to belong to the
Late Archaic and to assess their overall chronological placement, test excavations were
conducted at seven of the nine in Pativilca and six of the eight sites in Fortaleza.
Two strategies were used to obtain radiocarbon samples at the sites: excavation of
1m£ 2 m test units placed in areas of stratified refuse; clearing exposed profiles left by
previous construction projects and looting activities. The latter allowed for the extraction
of radiocarbon samples in the interior and earlier construction phases of platform mounds
and other architectural features. In all these cases, modern surfaces were completely
removed to expose undisturbed, in situ deposits to ensure that the samples were not
contaminated.
Radiocarbon dates and calibration
Dates in this paper are given in calibrated calendar dates derived from the Calib 4.4
calibration program
16,17
. Previously published dates have been recalibrated using Calib 4.4
for consistency. Each single ‘cal.
BC date is derived from the mean probability rounded to
Q2
the nearest decade. All dates from excavations in the Fortaleza and Pativilca valleys are
provided in the Supplementary Information, with laboratory numbers, radiocarbon years
before present (that is, before 1950; yr
BP), provenance and calibration ranges.
Received 17 March; accepted 26 October 2004; doi:10.1038/nature03146.
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Supplementary Information accompanies the paper on www.nature.com/nature.
Acknowledgements Research for this project was supported by the National Science Foundation,
the California Community Trust, The Field Museum, and the Center for Latino and Latin
American Studies, Northern Illinois University. We thank the Instituto Nacional de Cultura of
Lima, Peru and the municipalities of Pativilca, Paramonga and Barranca.
Competing interests statement The authors declare that they have no competing financial
interests.
Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.H. (jhaas@fieldmuseum.org).
Table 1 Radiocarbon dates from the excavations in the Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys
Site Radiocarbon yr
BP Cal. BC Site Radiocarbon yr BP Cal. BC Site Radiocarbon yr BP Cal. BC Site Radiocarbon yr BP Cal. BC
...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
CAB 3,920 ^ 70 2400 CB2 3,390 ^ 70 1680 POR 3,780 ^ 60 2210 SHA 3,660 ^ 60 2030
CAB 3,590 ^ 70 1940 CB2 3,630 ^ 80 2000 POR 4,930 ^ 70 3720 UPC 3,880 ^ 60 2380
CAB 3,680 ^ 70 2060 CB2 3,720 ^ 90 2120 POR 3,040 ^ 80 1280 UPC 4,080 ^ 70 2650
CAB 3,720 ^ 70 2120 CPA 3,789 ^ 48 2220 POR 3,850 ^ 40 2320 UPC 4,180 ^ 110 2740
CAB 3,890 ^ 80 2360 HCG 2,580 ^ 80 670 PSJ 3,540 ^ 70 1870 UPC 3,850 ^ 70 2310
CAB 4,450 ^ 290 3120 HCG 3,870 ^ 40 2350 PSJ 3,600 ^ 40 1950 UPC 3,770 ^ 70 2190
CAB 3,810 ^ 70 2260 HCG 3,940 ^ 40 2430 PSJ 3,600 ^ 60 1950 UPC 3,820 ^ 70 2270
CAB 3,630 ^ 70 2000 HCG 3,970 ^ 110 2480 PSJ 3,710 ^ 70 2100 UPC 3,820 ^ 70 2270
CAB 3,670 ^ 50 2050 HCG 4,110 ^ 70 2690 PSJ 3,710 ^ 70 2100 UPC 3,860 ^ 70 2330
CAB 3,980 ^ 70 2490 HCG 4,780 ^ 50 3570 PSJ 3,790 ^ 60 2230 UPC 2,700 ^ 60 870
CAB 4,050 ^ 80 2600 HCG 3,770 ^ 70 2190 POT 3,215 ^ 35 1480 UPC 2,910 ^ 70 1110
CAB 3,740 ^ 50 2140 HCG 3,860 ^ 40 2330 PYS 3,775 ^ 35 2200 UPC 2,910 ^ 80 1110
CAB 3,330 ^ 90 1620 HCG 3,910 ^ 40 2390 PYS 3,935 ^ 35 2420 UPC 2,160 ^ 70 210
CAB 3,920 ^ 70 2400 HCG 3,940 ^ 70 2420 PYS 3,210 ^ 70 1480 UPC 2,950 ^ 70 1160
CAB 4,000 ^ 70 2520 HCG 4,030 ^ 70 2560 PYS 2,430 ^ 70 560 VTA 3,970 ^ 70 2480
CAB 4,440 ^ 40 3100 HCG 4,230 ^ 90 2790 PYS 2,550 ^ 70 660 VTA 3,970 ^ 70 2480
CAR 3,760 ^ 70 2180 HCG 3,950 ^ 70 2440 PYS 9,750 ^ 110 9170 VTA 4,010 ^ 70 2540
CB1 2,950 ^ 70 1160 HYT 3,800 ^ 70 2240 PYS 2,600 ^ 70 750 VTA 3,700 ^ 110 2100
CB1 2,960 ^ 70 1180 HYT 3,820 ^ 70 2270 PYS 3,520 ^ 70 1840 VTA 3,860 ^ 60 2330
CB1 3,080 ^ 70 1330 POR 3,630 ^ 70 2000 PYS 6,440 ^ 70 5410 VTA 4,040 ^ 70 2580
CB1 3,110 ^ 70 1370 POR 3,890 ^ 40 2370 PYS 6,450 ^ 90 5410 VTA 3,930 ^ 70 2410
CB1 3,370 ^ 80 1640 POR 4,110 ^ 70 2690 PYS 7,410 ^ 70 6280 VTA 3,930 ^ 60 2400
CB1 3,090 ^ 70 1340 POR 4,160 ^ 70 2740 SHA 3,540 ^ 60 1870 VTA 3,940 ^ 70 2420
CB1 3,420 ^ 70 1720 POR 3,710 ^ 70 2100 SHA 3,080 ^ 70 1330
...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
CAB, Caballete; CAR, Carreterı
´a;
CB1, Cerro Blanco 1; CB2, Cerro Blanco 2; CPA, Cemetery CP; HCG, Huaricanga; HYT, Huayto; POR, Porvenir; PSJ, Pampa San Jose; POT, Potao; PYS, Punta y Suela;
SHA, Shaura; UPC, Upaca; VTA, Vinto Alto. See Methods for dating procedures.
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... These trends are exemplified in the Norte Chico region and especially in the Supe Valley where 25 settlements from the Late Preceramic and Initial Periods are found from the coast to over 1,000 meters above sea level (masl) (Haas et al. 2004, Shady Solís et al. 2001; Shady Solís 2014). ...
... Haas and Winifred Creamer conducted survey, testing, and excavations at 16 sites in the Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys (Creamer et al. 2007(Creamer et al. , 2011Haas et al. 2004;Haas and Creamer 2006). This work produced over 90 radiocarbon dates, although it was criticized for poor contextualization of the samples (see responses in Haas and Creamer 2006). ...
... At Caral the new occupants built pyramids and rectangular plazas in a small area of the northeast part of the site (Shady Solís et al. 2015). Dates from the Fortaleza and Pativilca valleys show continued or recurrent use at four sites in the Middle Formative (Haas et al. 2004). ...
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... In contrast to Aspero, Los Morteros and other Late Preceramic monumental sites known before 2001, Caral is located about 25 km inland, up the same valley as Aspero. Work by Shady elsewhere in the Supe Valley, and more recently byHaas et al. (2004) in neighbouring valleys, has uncovered additional inland Late Preceramic centres with mounds. ...
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... In contrast to Aspero, Los Morteros and other Late Preceramic monumental sites known before 2001, Caral is located about 25 km inland, up the same valley as Aspero. Work by Shady elsewhere in the Supe Valley, and more recently byHaas et al. (2004) in neighbouring valleys, has uncovered additional inland Late Preceramic centres with mounds. ...
... A few Central Andean projects were ahead of their time in exploring the potential of 14 C dating and Bayesian modeling Zeidler et al. 1998), and more recently an increasing number of projects have focused on the development of high-precision robust site chronologies, often through Bayesian modeling methods (e.g., Korpisaari et al. 2014;Marsh 2012;Marsh et al. 2019;Michczyński et al. , 2007Millaire 2020;Rademaker and Hodgins 2018;Sharratt 2019;Takigami et al. 2014;Vega-Centeno Sara-Lafosse 2008;Yaeger and Vranich 2013). These contrast sharply with the still-common use of 14 C dates largely in isolation from their contexts, as indicators of antiquity rather than building blocks in detailed chronologies (e.g., Dillehay et al. 2007;Haas et al. 2004;Pozorski and Pozorski 2005;Shady Solis et al. 2001). While use of 14 C dates to establish approximate calendar ages is necessary to the construction of basic chronological frameworks, explanatory analyses are likely to require the higherprecision site and regional chronologies produced by Bayesian modeling approaches. ...
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