Nearly 1000 years before the first pyramids were raised in Egypt, a city called Huaricanga was founded in the fertile Fortaleza Valley on the north central coast of Peru. This city was the first settlement by the Norte Chico, a civilization that flourished for 1300 years. For a millennia the Norte Chico expanded into the nearby Pativilca and Supe valleys, developed trading routes and extensive fishing operations, and grew cotton to spin into textiles and fishing nets.
The Norte Chico are remarkable among ancient civilizations for their almost total lack of artistic production. As a culture, they never developed ceramic technology, one of the most common mediums to express ancient creativity. So why are we talking about the Norte Chico on a website about art history? Because this culture with no art, no written language, and no warfare created some of the oldest pyramids in the world.
The Norte Chico people may not have created visual art, but they poured their heart and soul into architecture and landscaping. Evidence of a strong, centralized government appears in the form of massive storage warehouses for cotton, and feasting areas where massive populations could eat and drink together. Without written records, we can only guess that this was a highly collaborative and motivated culture, and look to their dense, sophisticated settlements for proof. In Caral, one of the most expansive Norte Chico cities, an elaborate complex of temples, an amphitheater, three sunken, circular plazas and residential buildings span 370 acres. Caral is also home to six platform mounds—shallow, stepped pyramids—the largest of which, called Piramide Mayor, measures 160 by 150 meters, and rises 18 meters high. Further proof of collaboration appears in the use of an early use of Quipu, a string-based recording device that was used later by the Inca, where knots and the spaces between knots allowed the keeping of numerical records.
Around 1800 BCE, the irrigation-based economy of the Norte Chico became difficult to support, and new civilizations began rising to prominence to the north and south of the Norte Chico’s river valleys. This most ancient of American civilizations didn't so much collapse as slowly dissolve, leaving arid valleys, ringed by mountains and dotted with pyramids.
Got questions, comments or corrections about Norte Chico Civilization? Join the conversation in our Discord, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member for exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts in the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "Norte Chico Civilization, The oldest civilization in the Americas," in Obelisk Art History, Published July 11, 2019; last modified November 08, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/timeline/prehistory/norte-chico-civilization/.