Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico


The Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico is envisioned as a 15 year investigation into the emergence of complex societies on the Peruvian coast during the 3rd millennium B.C. The research is focused in the Norte Chico region which includes four valleys, Huaura, Supe, Pativilca and Fortaleza, ranging from 150 to 200 km north of Lima. This region witnessed a unique and extraordinary florescence of large ceremonial/residential centers dating to the "Late Archaic" period ca. 1800-3000 B.C.

To date, 24 major Late Archaic sites have been located in the Norte Chico, all ranging from 10 to 200 ha in area, all with monumental and/or large-scale communal architecture, and all lacking ceramics. Moseley calls this "the largest concatenation of prepottery architectural monuments in the continent" (2001:113). The first phase of the project has been to test most of the known large Late Archaic sites in the Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys. The testing consisted of limited excavations in midden areas and in monumental architecture at each of the 10 centers targeted in the two valleys. The purpose of these excavations was twofold: 1.) to obtain organic materials for radiocarbon samples; 2.) to sample stratified residential trash for assemblages of artifactual and nonartifactual (botanical and zoological) materials.

Andean Peru has long been identified as one of the six major world areas where "civilization" developed under largely endogenous or "pristine" conditions (Fried 1967). The last quarter of the 20th century saw a great deal of research and writing focused on questions of how and why civilization first developed in the Andes (Moseley 1975; Haas 1982; Haas, Pozorski and Pozorski 1987; Wilson 1988; Stanish 2001; Pozorski and Pozorski 1990, 1993, 2000). Continuing research has steadily pushed back the very beginnings of the origins of what can be identified as emergent Andean civilization. For many years, Chavín with its ceremonial capital at Chavín de Huantar in the central highlands, was considered the "Mother Culture" of the Andean civilization. More recent research, however, has shifted the focus of attention away from the highland-based culture of Chavín, and moved it to a stretch of the central Peruvian coast. In this area, roughly located between the Lurin Valley on the south and the Casma Valley on the north, archaeological research is revealing a pattern of large ceremonial centers with monumental architecture and elaborate art. Dating of the sites in these early coastal developments is still being worked out, but there are a radiocarbon dates for some of these sites ranging from 4900 B.P. to 3200 B.P., well before the founding of Chavín de Huantar and the Chavín expansion in the Early Horizon.

Michael Moseley (1975) was one of the first to recognize the "precocity" of cultural development on the Peruvian coast. He pointed out that there were a number of large maritime-based sites up and down the coast that dated to the 3rd millennium or even before. He also was one of the first to highlight the fact that a number of these sites, such as Aspero in the Supe Valley and El Paraiso in the Chillon Valley had large communal architecture yet lacked ceramics in their cultural assemblages. This lack of ceramics would indicate that the sites antedated the introduction of ceramics in Peru at around 1800 B.C. Subsequently as radiocarbon dates began to come back for these preceramic sites they were confirmed to extend back into the 3rd millennium B.C. (Engel (1957) coined the term "Cotton Preceramic Stage" to delineate coastal sites such as these that had cotton but lacked ceramics and were occupied between ~3000 and 1800 B.C. "Late Archaic" is used here as it the term in most common usage among Peruvian archaeologists. Moseley then went on to argue that it was the organization of maritime subsistence strategies that was conducive to the emergence of political centralization. This centralization, in turn, in effect "preadapted" these cultural groups to the subsequent development of even more complex, hierarchical and centralized forms of organization based on irrigation agriculture.

Moseley's "maritime foundations of Andean Civilization" theory has been refined and debated now for past quarter century. It remains today a powerful explanation for how and why the Andean region started on the road that eventually led to much more complex states and empires. More recent research on the coast, however, is raising questions about whether the coastal maritime sites did indeed develop independently of an agriculturally based subsistence economy. Research in the Supe Valley by Shady and her colleagues (Shady 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, Shady, et al. 2001; see also Williams and Moreno 1979) has shown that the maritime community of Aspero in the Supe Valley was not alone; rather, it appears to have been an integral part of a much larger cultural system that included large agriculturally based urban centers.

In addition to Aspero, right at the mouth of the Supe River, there are nine large centers inland in the Supe Valley. Excavations as well as close examination of erosional cuts, farming disturbance, and looters holes have consistently shown that there are no ceramics associated with the occupation of these sites. (There are occasional intrusive ceramics from later periods in surface contexts on most of these sites.) (It must be emphasized at this point that dating of these sites is only tentative. Ceramics are introduced in both the north and south coasts of Peru by 1800 B.C., but there are at least some sites occupied after 1800 B.C. that also lack ceramics. The Pozorskis have called these sites 'aceramic' and caution must be used when the absence of ceramic is the sole means of identifying the date of site occupation (Pozorski and Pozorski 1990).

The nine largest center in Supe all have major platform mounds, (ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 cu m in volume), large public ceremonial structures known as "sunken circular plazas" (20-40 m in diameter and 1-3 m deep)(Williams 1986), and areas of residential architecture and trash that extend over 10 to 200 ha. The largest and most complex of the Supe sites, Caral, for example, extends over 110 ha, has 6 major platform mounds ranging from 200,000 to 20,000 cu m, and three separate sunken circular plazas. There are eight smaller preceramic sites in the Supe Valley with less residential architecture, smaller mounds and fewer ceremonial features. Aspero, on the coast, is consistent with these smaller sites, in that it occupies 15 ha, the largest mound at the site is 3200 cu m, and there is no sunken circular plaza (Moseley 1975; Feldman 1980; Haas and Creamer 2001). Small preceramic/aceramic residential and special-use sites of less than 1 ha have also been located through incidental surveys in Supe.

While the Supe Valley complex of sites has been recognized as unusual since the mid-1960's, more recent reconnaissance and salvage surveys in the adjacent Fortaleza and Pativilca valleys, immediately north of Supe, have located an additional 14 preceramic centers all with monumental architecture and circular plazas equivalent to the nine large inland centers in Supe. More sites have been tentatively identified on aerial photographs in both valleys, but these have not yet been ground checked and verified. A large settlement at the mouth of the Fortaleza River may have a preceramic maritime component similar to that at Aspero, but it has been obscured with buildings of a later occupation. Extensive, but informal, reconnaissance in the fourth of the Norte Chico valleys, Huaura, has turned up one possible large preceramic centers.

The remarkable assemblage of major preceramic centers in the Norte Chico region, all with monumental and ceremonial architecture, presents an unparalleled opportunity for archaeological research. The area offers the possibility of opening a window into the prehistoric beginnings of the earliest complex society to emerge in South America.


  • Radiocarbon Dates 2003 - These are the PANC dates from the Fortaleza and Pativilca valleys as they appeared in the supplementary information for the article published in Nature 432:7020.
  • Radiocarbon Dates - Comprehensive list of Radiocarbon dates from sites excavated in the Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys in 2002, 2003 and 2004