Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 10 — Caral, Peru: A Thousand Years of Peace
Chapter 10 — Caral, Peru: A Thousand Years of Peace
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind … War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.
—John F. Kennedy
When you realize how small the earth is in relation to the cosmos, and how small we are in relation to the Earth, then you can understand the appropriate place of humans in relation to the Earth. These people looked up at the stars and understood this. We look at the earth too much and miss the big picture, the stars. We must see a larger view if we are to live in peace.
– Dr. Ruth Shady
A Thousand Years of Peace
Throughout humanity’s 160,000-plus-year history, cultures ranging from tribes to city-states have undergone a three-stage process. They start out (stage one) immature: exploitative of each other and of the world around them. Like children, as a society they think they’re the center of the universe, the only “real people,” and thus unique from all other forms of life (and other cultures) that they have the (often divinely ordained) right to dominate and exploit everything around them.
This exploitation—the first known story of it is the seven-thousand-year-old “Epic of Gilgamesh,” arguably the oldest written story of “our” culture—inevitably leads to stage two, the consequences that Gilgamesh’s society encountered: environmental and cultural disaster. In the case of Ur and Uruk, ancient Samaria, the city-states founded by Gilgamesh, it was desertification of much of what is now known as central and northern Iraq, the consequence of upwind deforestation and agricultural practices that led to salination of the land.
Cultures then disappear, disperse, or reach stage three: maturity.
Ecological disasters—in most cases man-made—are at the root of virtually every historic disappearance or dispersal of cultures. (Even Rome fell because of deforestation: the felling of the last forests in Italy led to a currency crisis when there wasn’t enough wood to fuel the furnaces to smelt silver, and provoked Rome’s outward expansion across the rest of Europe—which led to the fall of that empire.)
Similarly, the American Empire—and arguably many others (Chinese, Russian, Japanese, European)—is setting up ecological disasters that are already producing catastrophic consequences. From deforestation to global warming to changing ocean currents (which could plunge the world into a new Ice Age in a period as short as two years) to massive species loss, the planet is dying. Princeton’s Dr. Stuart Pimm documents how about a quarter of all species alive just two hundred years ago are now extinct, and if current trends continue, half of all species will be extinct within thirty years.
The planet is a living organism, and the species on it, parts of an interconnected whole, a grand web of life. Just as a person can live and function without a few organs—an eye, a kidney, a few limbs, or even an entire hemisphere of the brain—when a certain critical mass of body parts or blood is gone or damaged, the entire body will cease to function.
What is driving all this is our culture, and the core cultural assumption that we are born to dominate one another, primarily through the instrument of war. Thus, one of the great debates among those who study the arc of human history, has been whether maturity is based in war, or whether war is an aberration in a mature society. And not just war of one human against another, one society against another, but also war against nature, humans behaving in ways that destroy the natural world.
Is the natural state of humans warlike? Is that why we naturally organize into clans, tribes, cities, states, and nations—to protect ourselves from other naturally warlike humans?
Or is the natural state of humans peaceful, and is war an aberration? Do we organize ourselves into cities in order to achieve our highest potential, instead of to defend ourselves from our lowest nature? Is the purpose of “society” supportive, nurturing, and ennobling?
These are critical questions for us for two reasons. The first is that we today stand at the precipice of environmental and war-driven disaster. The second is that the United States and most other modern liberal democracies were founded out of the Enlightenment notion that the true natural state of humankind is peace, not war; enlightenment, not hatred; integration with “natural law,” not defiance of it.
For a significant majority of tribal societies around the world, the question was settled tens of thousands of years ago: the natural state of humankind is peaceful. Hundreds of examples are easily found extant today, and detailed by anthropologists such as Robert Wolff and Peter Farb—and extensively by Thomas Jefferson.
But what about “modern civilizations”—cities and nations?
For most of the seven-thousand-year history of city-states, conventional wisdom has held that they were created to defend people from nearby warriors. Castles are essentially defensive institutions, developed to protect their inhabitants from instruments of warfare. In modern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America, the largest early cities were, essentially, giant castles, and evidence of warfare is everywhere, from ancient instruments of war to ancient murals of warriors at battle.
But is this why these cities were started? Why were the very first cities started? Cities are built layer upon layer over themselves, so that after a few thousand years some are hundreds of feet higher than they were when they were started. Excavating all the way down to the “mother city”—the original city—has never successfully been done. The evidence of the mother city, in every one of our known ancient civilizations, is gone, destroyed by the ravages of time and the builders of subsequent layers upon the foundation of the original.
That’s when Dr. Ruth Shady of the University of San Marcos at Lima, Peru, began excavation of a site spreading over hundreds of acres that for a thousand years or more had simply appeared to be a series of seven huge sand-covered mounds. By 2002 she realized she had found an ancient city; in 2004 she found artifacts that could be carbon-dated, and she discovered she had uncovered the oldest known intact city in the world. The world’s first excavatable mother city.
And the evidence is irrefutable. The citizens of this city, called Caral, lived in peace for more than a thousand years before they covered their city over and abandoned it—for reasons still unknown. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of war or the instruments of war. Instead, everything, from the art to the musical instruments to the burial sites, indicates that the people of Caral lived in peace and harmony. For a thousand years or more. Almost single-handedly, Ruth Shady has upended the worlds of both archeology and politics to provide a glimpse of hope that we can save the world from environmental or nuclear annihilation
While sifting through the sands of the seven desolate mounds, Dr. Shady knew she was exploring something archeologically significant—an ancient city, at least four thousand years old. It predated not only the Bronze and Iron ages, but even the Ceramic Age, yet it had huge plazas, giant pyramids, elaborate homes, and the remains of art, music, and a complex culture. But what she ultimately found was much more than just an ancient city, and it has turned our understanding of “civilization” and what it means to be “human” on its head. She found the world’s first “mother city”—literally the beginning of a civilization—and discovered that it was founded in peace and lived in peace for more than a thousand years.
In September of 2008 I made the trek down to Peru to meet Dr. Shady and hear and see for myself what could be learned from a human culture that, though ancient, existed in harmony within its environment and in peace with neighboring societies.
It’s a cold, gray morning in Lima as Renan, my interpreter, and two large, tough-looking guys pick me up at the hotel. Renan has lived in the United States and is fluent and well spoken in English; our two bodyguards, Lucho and Gilberto, speak only Spanish.
We drove for miles past squatter slums along a highway that runs up the west coast of South America. Renan says you can follow this highway all the way to the United States. Much of the road is empty and barren—sand-covered hills stretching into the distance, the product of millions of years of sand blowing in from the Pacific Ocean coast.
The slums rolled up and over the hillsides along the highway—shacks made of scrap materials, but located close enough to the highway that their residents could catch a bus ride into Lima to work. Raw sewage ran in open gutters along the dirt “streets” of the slums, and the odor occasionally reached our car. The sky was gunmetal gray and the air chilly when we left Lima, but as we traveled north up along the coast, climbing steadily, the sky opened up and the air became warm.
This long stretch of highway is where Renan said that bandits will sometimes roll large boulders out onto the road, and when you stop to move them you find yourself with an AK-47 in your face. Our bodyguards, Lucho and Gilberto, are former SEALs in the Peruvian navy. I asked Renan if they were armed, and he said, “Yes, and so am I.” I hoped the guns would not be needed.
After traveling almost two hours north, we came to a large truckstop-style gas station with an attached restaurant. Here we met Dr. Shady with her driver/bodyguard, and shared some breakfast and coffee. Shady is a pleasant-looking woman of middle years with a broad smile and a contagious enthusiasm for archeology, and for Caral, the city she is largely responsible for excavating.
As we sat and ate, I asked her what was most significant about Caral.
“Here, the civilization was different,” she said, contrasting the Caral of five thousand years ago with the city-states that were emerging in Egypt, India, and Asia. “The focus [of the culture] was different. When this civilization was formed here, peace was very important. There was no war.” She paused and looked at me with a glint in her eye. “Why? Why was there no war?” she asked, as if quizzing me.
I shrugged. “Many people think the only reason cities were originally created was to provide fortifications for war.”
But that was not the case in Caral, Dr. Shady said. There were no fortifications built at any time during the city’s one thousand years of continuous peaceful occupation.
“I think it is very important for the people in the world to ask [how Caral could live without war] because it is different in the modern world. I think the Caral civilization has a very important message to the world about how societies can live in peace.”
Dr. Shady noted that Caral was a complex society, and had complex interactions with many other societies in the region, many of which lived in radically different ways. “Caral had state or political authorities because this civilization had interactions with societies that lived on the coast, the highlands, and the lowlands, all different environments,” Dr. Shady said. “They were interacting because they were very different. Different resources. The religion was very important. I think most important was that the political authorities used religion for social cohesion and political coercion, rather than using violence and war.”
But was it just religion, I asked, that made for peace?
“We had information that women were very important,” she said. “In Caral we found two figures, a man and a woman together. The woman had a dress very similar to the white of the Incas, and I think she was a very important person. She had two necklaces made of a very special material with an important design of a cross. Her face had tattoos and holes for earrings—the symbol of political importance until the Incas. The man had only one necklace and his eyes were looking at her.”
Dr. Shady added that the figurines were consistent with other ancient artifacts from peaceful societies, and that even among the much later Incan empire—a warlike empire—“the wife of the Inca, as the Spanish chronicled, had the special role of diplomat and negotiated peace. “
An hour later, after driving into an incredibly remote valley, through miles of dense scrub and then miles of desert-like dust, and then through a valley where the road was only barely discernable, we came to the site where the city of Caral was being excavated. The sun was bright and so intense at this elevation and latitude that by day’s end my face was bright red. Dr. Shady put on a scarf and hat to protect herself from the sun. We walked among the ruins and talked.
“We began to work in the valley in 1994,” she said. “Soon we were working all the valley. We found a site with monumental buildings. But nobody knew the age of the site. After the first month I could see that there weren’t any ceramics, only textiles [among the remains], and the techniques of these textiles were similar [to those of] another very old site that we know of in this country from the Archaic period.”
“Pre-Ceramic?” I asked. This would have made the city a transition point from Stone Age cultures to city-living cultures, dating it from about five thousand years ago—long before iron or bronze or any other metal was refined, long before glass was made, before even kiln-based pottery techniques were developed.
“Yes,” she said. “This was pre-Ceramic. But here the difference [from most pre-Ceramic societies] was the very big buildings. The human design.”
We walked along a pathway that was defined on both sides by small stones, to keep people from wandering randomly around the site. We passed a place where the sandy soil had been dug deeply into, revealing stone buildings that looked like the rooms of a house. “Under all this sand are homes?” I asked.
Dr. Shady pointed to the excavation and said, “One group here.” We stood along a long ridge, a flat area with bare, sand-covered hills in the far distance. Behind us, a few hundred feet below in elevation, was a lush valley with a river that had been running through it for tens of thousands of years or more. She pointed to thirty acres or so of hillside. “Another group here. And I think all these people lived here because it’s so near to the valley.”
She explained that the people were agriculturalists who worked the valley, but that their primary crop was cotton, which was formed into fishing nets and then traded with coastal-living people in exchange for everything from anchovies (primarily) to whales. The societies were interdependent and symbiotic, rather than competitive.
There was also, she said, a strong emphasis on the family unit, as shown by the way the housing was organized. Even today, the local people of the Caral area continue with traditions that Dr. Shady believes track back thousands of years ago to when the ancient city of Caral was occupied.
She described to me how the locals she’d hired for excavation asked her every year to bring a shaman into the community to keep the site sacred and thus keep them safe. “Each year I have to do a religious event here,” she said, “because the people think that if I don’t, they can have accidents because they work in this sacred site. So every October I have to do this ceremony of the pago a la Tierra … I have to pay the earth.”
I asked her about the shamans (sometimes a woman) she brought in every October. Where did they conduct the ceremony?
She noted that there were two parts or sides to Caral, one on a slightly higher plain, with large administrative buildings and plazas, all square or rectangular and with all the public areas laid out in straight lines. And then there was another site—essentially on the other side of a slight hill and road that bisected the area, where the public areas were round, including a dramatic round public amphitheater that was dug twenty or more feet into the ground. The acoustics of it were perfect—you could stand in the middle of it and speak, and hear a perfect echo of your voice—and this was the area where, Dr. Shady said, they had found most of the musical instruments. And it was the only area where the shamans were willing to perform their sacred ceremonies.
Dr. Shady noted that a colleague, Dr. R. Tom Zuidema, professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Illinois, suggested to her that the “round” areas were probably under the control of women rather than men, an idea that made sense to her.
And, apparently, to the shamans. “When the person who conducts the religious ceremonies comes here, she won’t make them here,” Dr. Shady said as we stood in the “square” part of town.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she said she heard people crying here.”
I looked at the hills around us—many of them still unexcavated pyramids and buildings—and tried to imagine what life must have been like here five thousand years ago. Looking at the excavated houses, it wasn’t hard to imagine the spirits of the people who lived here so long ago as still being around.
Further reinforcing Shady’s idea that the square buildings were administrative or governmental, and the round areas ceremonial, she and her helpers had found thirty-two flutes and thirty-eight antaras (a type of carved-bone panpipe) in the round areas, particularly around the amphitheater.
“I think the social organization was complex for the music also,” she said. “These instruments weren’t for solo performances; they were for groups of people to play.”
“And this was another way in which Caral was a mother city? The music?”
“I think the first complex society was born here, and the mother that these organizations were being copied for another period after the time.”
I asked her how a five-thousand-year-old city could have been successfully hidden for four thousand years so it wouldn’t be looted or torn down and built over, as all other mother cities had been?
“When I came here all the pyramids were like this,” she said, waving her arms at what seemed like thirty or so rolling, sand-covered hills—under which her archeologists were discovering pyramids, buildings, and dense housing complexes. “The people in this valley thought they were hills, only hills.”
The reason, she explained, was that around four thousand years ago there was a change in the climate—a major el Niño–type of event off the Pacific coast, fifteen miles away—that produced a multigenerational drought. People couldn’t grow anything, and so moved away. The plants holding the soil died, leaving the sandy soil from the ocean to the west all the way to this valley to the mercy of the continuous winds, which brought, over the years, foot after foot of sand, which covered the buildings, the pyramids, and filled in the amphitheater. While Pompeii was covered by several feet of ash overnight, Caral was covered by yards of sand and micro-fine soil in just a few hundred years. The sand became so deep that nobody ever tried settling here again, because the soil was too unstable to build anything on, and too sandy (and salty) to grow anything in.
The city of Caral had been sealed into such a perfect time capsule that when one of Dr. Shady’s archeologists took me on a tour of the pyramids, he showed me nets filled with stones used to fill in spaces between walls, and the nets—made of five-thousand-year-old hand-spun cotton—were still intact, still holding the stones in place. Seeds and food were found in storage rooms, along with clothing, figurines, musical instruments—it was all there. Quipus—knotted cords used to record events and transactions—were intact. And all could be radio-carbon-dated to accurately prove that this was the most ancient mother city ever discovered intact.
Are we innately evil or good, peaceful or warlike?
In 1634, Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan, stated our culture’s assumption of the essentially evil nature of humans, saying that life without the iron fist of church or state would be “war of every man against every man,” resulting in a society where life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
A generation later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke challenged Hobbes, suggesting that evidence from tribes being discovered across Africa and the Americas by European explorers demonstrated that, instead, the natural state of humankind was good, egalitarian, and peaceful.
The thinking of Rousseau and Locke explicitly and overtly influenced the founders of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson, who saw verification of it in their own contact with Native Americans.
Thus began America, as an egalitarian experiment. An experiment that has been expanded and developed by nearly a hundred other nations in the world that claim democracy, particularly the countries of Northern Europe, where once feared and warlike people—most notably the Vikings of Norway and Sweden—are now among the happiest and most peaceful and self-sufficient people in the world.
Yet the Hobbeses of the world are currently ascendant, both in terms of war on humans and war on the environment.
But what should be done?
As I said in Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental documentary The 11th Hour:
The problem is not a problem of technology. The problem is not a problem of too much carbon dioxide, the problem is not a problem of global warming, the problem is not a problem of waste. All of those things are symptoms of the problem. The problem is the way that we are thinking. The problem is fundamentally a cultural problem. It’s at the level of our culture that this illness is happening.
In this book I have shared with you stories from all around the world of cultures that have matured, awakened, and found ways to live in peace, harmony, and ecological balance, and the fate of others that have not. Some are pre-city aboriginal and tribal cultures, some are modern communities, and some are fully developed city-states moving quickly in this direction. All offer us a new vision of how life can be in a world where the core assumptions of modern culture are challenged and modified.
This is not a radical or “new age” or easily dismissed concept. It started with the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century.
Its first experiment was the founding of the United States of America in the eighteenth century.
It flowered around the world throughout the nineteenth century, as nation after nation flipped from warrior-king states to democracies.
It found global acceptance in the twentieth century with the foundation of the United Nations, the first international organization whose single explicit purpose for existence was to create, promote, and maintain worldwide peace.
And now, in the twenty-first century, as war (against humans and against nature) is increasingly being viewed with horror by people across the world, movements are springing up all over the planet to reject the immature stage-two cultural paradigms of the past and move us into a post-carbon, post-warfare, egalitarian and peaceful world where there is room both for humans and for all other life.
The Uprising of the Men
If it’s true, as scientists from Dr. Peter Farb to Dr. Riane Eisler to Dr. Ruth Shady point out, that a prime differentiator between warrior societies and peaceful societies is the role of power relationships between men and women, then the question is raised: When and how and why did the men take over?
Most preliterate cultures, from those in the Arctic to those in the southernmost tips of South America and Africa, were largely peaceful before contact with modern technology and culture. While there was conflict, and often violent conflict, it rarely reached the proportion of organized, sustained, legally sanctioned mass murder that today we call war.
As anthropologist Peter Farb has documented, some Native American societies—for example, the Shoshone—didn’t even have a word for war in their vocabulary. Others used organized games to resolve conflicts.
The modern game of Lacrosse was developed by the Iroquois for this purpose, and the competitions would sometimes involve thousands of men, played on a field several miles across, from sunup to sundown for as long as three straight days.
In 1848 American artist George Catlin captured what looks like a scene of a massive Indian war, but was actually a Lacrosse game, as you can see from his famous painting Ball-play of the Choctaw—Ball Up, which hangs today in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.
Many theories have been put forward for how and why the men, and by extension the warrior mentality, took over. Maria Gimbutas and Riane Eisler suggest it was associated with the beginning of animal husbandry—herding and pastoralism. When we began to domesticate large mammals that shared the limbic or “emotional” brain with us (something birds and reptiles don’t have), we developed emotional ties to them. In some cases these ties became so strong that people have been known to die to protect animals (many of the people who didn’t leave New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, for example, stayed behind because they were unwilling to leave their pets).
Building these emotional bonds with cows, goats, sheep, pigs (smarter than dogs!), and camels, and then killing those same animals for food, required a certain type of disconnected thinking, a breaking of the bond between emotion and intellect, between seeing another living thing as a fellow-feeling being and objectifying it as an “it,” seeing it as “just an animal.”
My wife, Louise, spent many of her childhood years on her grandmother’s one-hundred-acre farm in central Michigan. Louise and her brother—over the objections of their grandparents—got to know the cows, their unique personalities, and even gave them names. When it came time to slaughter them, Louise and Art would leave, and often were unwilling to eat the resulting meat.
The learned ability to disconnect oneself from the product of mammal-to-mammal killing was, suggested Gimbutas and Eisler, the emotional/psychosocial disconnect that then led people to more easily objectify and then kill each other, starting around seven thousand years ago with early pastoralism.
One objection to this theory, though, is that there are numerous pastoralist tribes throughout the world who don’t routinely engage in genocidal wars.
Another theory, first advanced by Walter Ong and xxx Logan, and later popularized by Leonard Shlain, is that the development of abstract alphabets and the literacy based on them fundamentally rewired our brains as children in such a way as to make us all potential killers.
Broadly speaking, the right hemisphere of our brain is nonverbal and processes music, relationship-based behaviors, and what have been broadly (and with terrible overgeneralization) described as “creative” efforts. This hemisphere is sometimes described as the “feminine” part of our brain.
While most thinking originates in the evolutionarily more ancient right brain (which controls the left side of our bodies), it then passes into the left hemisphere of the brain for final processing. Our left hemisphere is verbal, spatial, and abstract. While the right hemisphere experiences things in a more holistic sense, the left hemisphere makes distinctions, separations, logical partitions. While the right hemisphere is filled with music or silence, the left hemisphere is filled with words. It’s linear, methodical, unemotional, and broadly (again, often too broadly) described as the “masculine” part of our brain.
The left hemisphere is where abstractions—such as alphabets—are processed. Shlain, Ong, Logan, et al. suggest that the coup by men (as opposed to balanced egalitarianism) came about when children learned to read at an early age. This over-exercises the left hemisphere, and as a result, instead of it behaving cooperatively with the right hemisphere, it rises up and “takes over” the rest of the brain. The result is a colder and less emotional form of thinking and behaving, and a feeling of disconnection from all life around us (or, more accurately, a lack of a feeling of connection, as that’s the province of the right hemisphere). This disconnection has led directly to centuries of war and even to the Nazi horrors of the Holocaust.
Waldorf Education founder Rudolf Steiner suggested something along these lines back in 1907, arguing that children should not learn to read until after the age of seven, after the second great demyelination and the time when the brain has learned to work in hemispheric balance. Steiner suggested that this would produce more peaceful people and thus a more peaceful world, a notion so heretical that Hitler hunted him across the world.
In support of the idea of teaching children abstractions such as reading after the age of seven, Shlain points out how during the several hundred years of European Dark Ages, not only was there a boringly consistent (relatively speaking) lack of war in Europe, but the major form of worship was that of a female goddess deity, Mary.
Once the Catholic Church’s ban on literacy was lifted and young people began to learn to read at an early age, Shlain notes, more than a million women were tortured and murdered within a few generations.
A remnant of the language of Caral is still spoken in a few remote nearby towns today, a language with no other clear root from nearby peoples or countries. But the people who lived in Caral were not literate (although they did use textiles and knotted ropes to record events and transactions). This may be one of the keys to their thousand years of peace—that children under the age of seven weren’t taught an alphabet, and so the men and women lived in a relatively equal balance of power.
Or maybe peace is simply the natural state of things …
Is There a Normal Cycle to Cultures?
Most aboriginal/indigenous/tribal people around the world live in relative peace and homeostasis with their environment, the result of thousands (and in some cases tens of thousands) of years of trial-and-error cultural development adapted to local conditions. Caral shows that the first transition to city living was also peaceful, further suggesting that war may well be the cultural equivalent of a mental illness.
Given these assumptions (which much, but not all, history suggests are simply facts), then the question arises: How do we create city-state cultures that live in peace? Is it even possible, or are we all doomed to cycles of boom and bust, of empire and subsequent crash/poverty?
Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair pointed out one of the most interesting—and little noted—modern realities to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in September of 2008: “No two democracies,” Blair said, “have ever gone to war with each other.”
This point—that people in a true democracy will never empower their leaders to attack another democracy—is such an absolute article of faith among neoconservatives that it was one of the rationales used to invade Iraq in 2003, to “turn it into a democracy.” Unfortunately, they failed to realize its corollary—that democracies that don’t grow organically from within rarely survive as democracies. As comedian Dick Gregory commented to me when we were traveling to Uganda in 1980, “You don’t have to shove our way of life down people’s throats with the barrel of a gun. If it’s that good, they will steal it themselves!” And in the nearly thirty years since then, country after country has done just that, from South Africa to Ukraine to East Germany to Argentina.
Cultural history—from Caral to today—and biology all tell us that democracy is the normal and homeostatic anchor of peoples who have had enough time to work it out by trial and error. A landscape littered with non-democratic cultures and civilizations that have risen and fallen, and a planet covered on five continents with living or remnant tribal cultures that have been stable democracies for thousands or tens of thousands of years, shows us the inevitability of culturally egalitarian democracy.
The difference between us today and those who lived in previous times is that we have the luxury of looking back across the whole sweep of world history and “prehistory” to see how it works (and what prevents it from working) and, it is hoped, to finally get it right.
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