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Norte Chico Civilization: History, Culture & Writing

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Archeologists had many ideas about the necessary components of a civilization, but then they found Norte Chico. In this lesson, we'll examine this mysterious civilization and see how it defies expectations.

Civilization and Norte Chico

What defines an civilization, and how are civilizations made? Think about it. Archeologists spend a lot of time debating the necessary components of a civilization. For a long time it was assumed that to become a complex civilization, a society must have developed writing. Okay, but then what about the many civilizations of the Americas that didn't have a true writing system? Well, at least they had a strong agricultural tradition built on a staple grain crop and advanced ceramics. Okay, but then what about Norte Chico?

Norte Chico is an arid region of the Andean Plateau along Peru's west coast. It's not the first place you'd expect civilization to emerge, but maybe that's why the civilization of Norte Chico is so unique. With no system of writing, little evidence of art, and few signs of social stratification, Norte Chico doesn't look like a traditional civilization. In fact, they never even developed pottery. Yet, in this unlikely region, people were building monumental architecture as early as 3,000 BCE, making them one of the oldest civilizations in the world. We'd say that the Norte Chico civilization really broke the mould, but frankly the mould hadn't even been made yet.

Life in Norte Chico

The people of the Norte Chico civilization left behind a limited material culture, so our knowledge of them is relatively sparse. What we do know is that they appeared around 3,000 BCE in the Andean Plateau seemingly out of nowhere, and thrived for around 1,200 years. There are roughly 20 Norte Chico communities spread over the 700-square mile region, mostly located in river valleys that provided natural irrigation.

The Norte Chico people seem to have relied very heavily on maritime resources, notably anchovies, which they got from the Pacific Ocean. They also developed one of the earliest agriculture traditions in the Americas, farming squash, beans, and avocados, as well as cotton for textiles. Interestingly, cotton seems to be the only crop produced on a massive scale, used for clothes and fishnets. This suggests that agriculture was not the main base of their diet. It's also worth noting that none of these are the staple grain crops associated with most civilizations. A few archeologists think they've found evidence of corn production in Norte Chico sites, but overall the role of corn is inconclusive. Most of their food seems to have come from the sea, or from hunting wild deer and llamas.

Norte Chico Architecture

Two stone pyramids at Caral
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What really makes Norte Chico unique is its architecture. Norte Chico cities were major metropolises (by the standards of the time), with monumental terraced stone pyramids and large sunken, circular plazas. The largest of these plazas was 40 meters in diameter. The largest Norte Chico city, Caral, had an urban center that covered 150 acres.

Overall, Norte Chico cities feature large-scale architecture on organized central plans. In fact, the basic urban plan developed by the Norte Chico people would define Andean city-building for the next 4,000 years, utilized by people like the Inca. The ability to do all of this required massive mobilization of workers and resources. That implies some sense of structured government, but we don't know what it looked like. What we do know is that stone was quarried and transported for miles to make the pyramids, plazas were dug out in uniform ways, and adobe houses and other buildings were constructed around the temples of the central plaza. Norte Chico had some of the best urban planning in the world at this time.

Large sunken plaza or ceremonial pit
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