Monday, March 9, 2015

The Earliest Americans—Huaca Prieta

The Huaca Prieta (meaning “Dark Earth Temple”) is a prehistoric settlement beside the Pacific in the Chicama Valley of northern Peru in the present La Libertad region, just north of Trujillo and about 310 miles north of Lima. 
Huaca Prieta is a very old site in the Chicama Valley along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It is believed the people were both fishermen and farmers
    At Huaca Prieta are monumental ceremonial mounds, built around 2500 B.C., with numerous residential mounds, stairways, plazas, a ceremonial center and crops. Highly skilled twined cotton weaving was found, as well as gourds carved with stylized geometric motifs. Here again are found architecture, platforms, where no ceramics have been found, like Las Haldas, El Paraido and Chuquintanta, located on the central Peruvian coast. All have various residential complexes of clay and stone constructed by building rooms and terraces one on top of another, much the same as in the Pueblo towns of the southwestern United States. Another important Pre-Ceramic site is Kotosh in the northern highlands of Peru. At Kotosh, terraced temples were made of fieldstone set in earth and decorated with clay reliefs of crossed hands, and also the Pre-Ceramic sites of Chavín de Huántar and Paracas (see previous posts of this series).
    All of these cultures and sites have at least one thing in common—the building of monumental structures before they seem to have had or developed ceramics.
The site of Huaca Prieta, also called Chicama, in northern coastal Peru, located at the mouth of the Chicama River
    Excavations of Huaca Prieta, a large complex stone and earth platform mound, built in several stages, replete with a massive access ramp and numerous burials, have revealed subterranean pit dwellings, and that the people grew squash chilies, and cotton as well as caught fish, and wove baskets and numerous cloth. The impressive mound measures 453 feet by 203 feet, and 105 feet high (10 stories). There are stone-faced terrace rooms on the eastern and western slopes, with a large sunken plaza 82 feet in diameter, with stone-faced stepped platforms and small masonry rooms.
    A ramp 130 feet by 115 feet was constructed leading up to the summit of the mound from the northeast slope. 75 feet of mound is above the present-day ground surface, the recent excavations have established that 30 feet of mound building exists below the present surface, suggesting an increase in height of the surface level of some thirty feet.
Top: Junius Bouton Bird excavating Huaca Prieto for ten months in 1946-1947; Bottom: Junius and wife Peggy Bird (center right), along with Bob Bird (background) and Elvira Sanchez (left) sorting material from sifters during the original field work at Huaca Prieta 1946-1947
    Early excavations conducted by pioneer archaeologist Julius Bird in the 1940s, made this the first pre-ceramic site excavated. The findings indicated that the site’s builders were sedentary people living in pit-houses, who cultivated crops as a supplement to marine fishing. The builders used a broad range of technology, including stone, bone and wood tools, bottle gourds, basketry and textiles. Cotton weaving and netting were used with some textiles involved iconographic styles with intricate designs.
    As Bird himself wrote of the 4000 cotton fabrics and 2000 fragments he found: “The fact that some of the textiles rank high among the finest fabrics ever produced should lead us in all humility to seek not only a knowledge of their origin and development, but also a better understanding of what they actually represent in terms of human accomplishment.”
    Within twelve miles of the mound, 38 small pre-ceramic domestic residential sites have been found that were occupied between the shoreline and he backwater wetlands during the mound construction period. These cobblestone mounds form small hamlets or communities comprised of several households and an open plaza-like area, and contained domestic hearths, food preparation areas, middens (refuse heaps) and residential structures—but do not contain the black soot and ash found at Huaca Prieta. Evidently, the mound at Huaca Prieta was built and maintained by people living at these sites located on both the coastal and inland sides of the estuarine wetlands.
Top: The first excavation into a mound of dirt at Huata Prieta suspected of being manmade; Bottom: Soon the structure, steps and pyramid begins to take shape
    East of the domestic sites were discovered several raised agricultural platforms, which were built in the wetlands where beans, squash and chili peppers were grown. Instead of ceramics, workers have found over 10,000 fragments of cut and carved bottle gourds—most were bowls with incurving rims, jars with constricted mouths, small spherical containers, dippers and ladles. The bowls were decorated with incisions and engravings, including geometric cross-hatching and stylized faces.
    The fishermen used bottle gourds as floats and to balance the net lines, and animals recovered at the site included llamas, dogs, and deer. There were also remains of pre-ceramic maize, coca, peanut, cherimoya, sweet potato, quinoa, avocado, yuca, manioc and pacae, as well as various tubers.
    These first people of Huaca Prieto lived in simple dwellings—rooms lined with stone and roofs made of wood and whalebone—grew crops and fished, and were highly skilled with cotton textiles—growing long-stranded high qualify cotton, and produced dyes of over 100 different shades of color in their cloth, weaving figures of men, sea creatures, and animals into the multi-colored yarn. They and those that followed, developed such a high quality cotton industry that by the time the Spanish arrived, the newcomers mistook the cloth for silk.
    They also had fireplaces, chimneys, storage pits, dumpsters, food packaging and other indicators of domestic occupation, all showing a high social complexity.
While they did not make earthenware (at least none has been found at their sites), they made vessels out of gourds that they incised with elaborate geometric designs, as well as depictions of human beings, condors, snakes, and crabs, making them the earliest dated examples of graphic art in the Americas.
    According to Margaret A. Towle (The Ethnobotany of Pre-Columbian Peru), these sites along the north coastal area of Peru “resemble one another and fit into a large uninterrupted cultural sequence which extends from the pre-ceramic early agricultural epoch, in which maize is lacking, into a later ceramic epoch in which maize occurs.” And recent chronological data reported in Antiquity in 2012 suggests that the complexity of the mound construction is singular, with no direct antecedents (meaning it was the first occupation of the area and those inhabitants started off with building the complex mound).
    This means, contrary to most archaeological assumptions, that nothing existed at Huaca Prieto before the mound (pyramid) was built. There was no earlier diffusion found, no previous period of development or human occupation. The people who first settled Huaca Prieto were an advanced pre-ceramic culture who evidently had not developed or made earthenware. By comparison, when the Jaredites settled in the promised land, they were an advanced culture; when the Nephites settled in the Land of Promise, they were an advanced culture.

1 comment:

  1. Having lived in Trujillo, and many return trips, I am certain that there is one photo, that is mislabeled: i the Huaca del Sol in Trujillo, (under the photo is this caption: Huaca Prieta is a very old site in the Chicama Valley along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It is believed the people were both fishermen and farmers.