Friday, January 27, 2017

Earliest Urbanization in the Americas

Anthropologists classify cultures by their degree of sophistication. From a geographic perspective, Hunter gatherers settle down into sedentism practicing agriculture. Sedentary people cluster together into urban centers with civic architecture. Urban areas become cities. Cities develop into states. States form empires. From a social perspective, families band together in clans. Clans form tribes. Tribes develop into chiefdoms. Chiefdoms evolve into states. States form empires. The earliest appearance of sedentism, urbanization, cities, and states are important milestones in the culture history of a region.

North America.

Watson Brake, Louisiana is the earliest urban center yet discovered in North America. It dates to ca. 3,500 BC.
Artist's Rendering of Watson Brake in NE Louisiana
The earthworks were simple and small. Watson Brake was pre-ceramic. Excavations there uncovered no evidence of long-distance trading. Populations were in the hundreds. Nevertheless, its early dates, first reported in 1997, took archaeologists by surprise. No one expected urbanism with even a modest scale community center at 3,500 BC.

Poverty Point, Louisiana dates to ca. 1,700 BC. It is much larger and was engaged in extensive long-distance trade. It also had crude ceramics. Populations were in the thousands.
Artist's Rendering of Poverty Point in NE Louisiana
Poverty Point is important enough in North American prehistory it is now a National Monument as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Both Watson Brake and Poverty Point were urban centers, but neither developed into a city. The only ancient city anthropologists recognize in North America is Cahokia which had a population of approximately 50,000 people at its peak with several hundred thousand in its periphery.
Monks Mound, Largest Ancient Earthwork North of Mexico
Cahokia dates to ca. AD 850. Its largest structure, Monks Mound, rises to 33 meters and has a volume of 623,000 cubic meters. Cahokia is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cahokia was beginning to develop some state-level characteristics when it collapsed ca. AD 1,300. For a discussion of tribalism and states, see the article entitled "State Level Society."

Middle America

The earliest urban centers discovered to date in Mesoamerica are Cuicuilco in Central Mexico (ca. 1,400 BC), San Jose Magote in Oaxaca (ca. 1,500 BC), Paso de la Amada on the Pacific coast of Chiapas (ca. 1,800 BC) and Monte Alto on the Pacific coast of Guatemala (ca. 1,800 BC). San Lorenzo (ca. 1,200 BC) is generally considered the first Mesoamerican city. 
Earliest Urban Centers in Middle America

South America

The earliest urban center yet discovered in South American is Caral on the Peruvian coast near Supe. Caral dates to ca. 3,000 BC. It was the largest of 18 affiliated sites in the area.
Caral on the Pacific Coast of Peru
Photo by Kirk Magleby, April 2014
Caral was preceramic. Populations were in the tens of thousands. It had dozens of large-scale public works. Long-distance trade is attested. It was a true city - large and sophisticated. Caral is the earliest advanced civilization currently known in the western hemisphere. Quipus, the knotted string cords the Inca used as inventory control and mnemonic devices, were found at Caral, as were the famous Andean multi-pitched pan pipes.
Quipu and Pan Pipes Discovered at Caral
Photo by Kirk Magleby, April 2014
Peru is so proud of the earliest known New World city, they adopted a spiral design from Caral as their new national symbol.
Caral Spiral Carved in Stone
Photo by Kirk Magleby, April 2014
Peru's current tourist logo on a baseball cap.
National Symbol Inspired by Ancient Caral
Caral, which only came to the world's attention in 2001, surprised the experts. No one anticipated a city co-terminus with the first Egyptian dynasty in the Americas. No clear antecedents have been found. A full-fledged advanced civilization appeared on the scene seemingly out of nowhere. In 2009, Caral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.