Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize

(Tales of Two Civilizations, Part I)


“Would you like to hold a four-thousand-year-old textile?”

Without waiting for my assent, Jonathan Haas slid the fabric into my hand. It was about two inches on a side, little more than a scrap, and aged to the color of last season’s straw. To my eye, it seemed carefully made: a warp of fine cotton threads, ten or fifteen to the inch, crossed at half-inch intervals by paired weft threads in a basket-like pattern known as “weft-twining.” Haas, an archaeologist at the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, had plucked the fabric from the earth minutes before, two graduate students immortalizing the operation with digital cameras. Thousands of years ago it had been handled or worn by other people; bits of their DNA might still adhere to the fibers. (If so, I was contaminating it.) To be the first person in two hundred generations to see or touch an object—to reach across time with eye and hand—is one of the reasons why people like Haas spend their days sifting through ancient soil.

Ordinarily, archaeologists label and store such artifacts immediately. But just as Haas removed the cloth from the ground, he was distracted by the excited shouts of a group of workers a hundred feet away. Haas clambered over the rough ground to take a look. Poking through the earth at the workers’ feet was something that resembled the edge of a dinner plate. Haas kneeled to inspect it. When he came back to his feet, his eyebrows had shot up like a pair of circumflexes. “What’s this doing here?” Haas asked the air. “It looks like unfired ceramics.” The site was supposed to be very old—well before the local invention of pottery. “Better have a look at it.” Reaching for the trowel in his back pocket, he had realized that the textile was still in his hand, and asked if I would mind hanging on to it.


“Would you like to hold a four-thousand-year-old textile?”

Haas was standing midway up a sixty-foot hummock in a valley along the central coast of Peru, about 130 miles north of Lima. The valley was desert, withered and yellow-gray except for the crooked band of green that marked the course of the Fortaleza River. In the late 1990s Haas and Winifred Creamer—his wife and co-teamleader, an archaeologist at Northern Illinois University—assisted a research team led by a Peruvian archaeologist, Ruth Shady Solis, that had spent years investigating an ancient ceremonial center fifteen miles to the south. By carbon-dating some of Shady’s material, they helped establish that the Peruvians had uncovered the oldest known city in the Americas.

Afterward, Haas, Creamer, and a Peruvian archaeologist, Álvaro Ruiz, drove a four-by-four through the back roads of the area between that excavation and the Fortaleza Valley. Called the Norte Chico, the region is studded with isolated knolls, twenty to fifty feet high and as much as two hundred feet long. These mounds had been flagged as possible ruins for nearly a century but never excavated because they seemed to have no valuable gold or ceramic objects. The Pan-American Highway had been laid right through them without causing an outcry. Haas, Creamer, and Ruiz had decided to drive through the area because they suspected that the mounds might be more interesting and numerous than had been realized. Ultimately, the three researchers determined that the Norte Chico held the remains of at least twenty-five cities, all of which they wanted to explore. On the day I visited, the team was unburying a city they called Huaricanga, after a nearby hamlet. Here the Pan-American Highway had, as it turned out, sliced through some of the oldest public architecture anywhere on earth.

“You mean to tell me there’s no dental picks at all?” Haas was saying. “All these people and not one has a dental pick? I’d really like a pick for this thing.”

“Nobody can find one,” Creamer said. She left to supervise the second part of the dig, two hundred yards away, on the other side of the highway.

Haas sighed, pushed back his wide-brimmed straw hat, and leaned into the dirt with jackknife and paintbrush. Despite the low clouds—an almost featureless carpet a thousand feet above our heads—perspiration stippled his temples. With Ruiz documenting the work with a digital camera, Haas silently plucked out dead insects, bits of leaf, and lengths of shicra, a kind of thick twine made from reeds. When he had cleared enough, he sat back and stared at the now-exposed object. “I have no idea what this is,” he announced. “Got any tweezers?” Ruiz produced a caliper-sized pair from his backpack.

“Bravo,” Haas said. “We have tweezers.”

Although the Huaricanga mound resembled an ancient sandhill, the soft, shifting, slightly gritty surface was not sand but the fine, windblown soil geologists call “loess.” Fertile stuff, if it can somehow be irrigated, the loess blanketed the underlying structure like a heavy tarpaulin tossed over a piece of machinery. Here and there the archaeologists had scooped it away to reveal granite walls that had once been smoothly plastered. Over time, weather and earthquakes and perhaps human malice had buckled most of the walls, but their overall layout had been preserved. Behind them the team had removed some of the fill: bags of stones, created by knotting shicra into mesh sacks, filling the sacks with chunks of granite, and laying the results like fifty-pound bricks in the foundation.

Moving slowly, Haas tweezered out the pieces—they looked like the remnants of a serving platter—and passed them to Ruiz, who dropped them into a resealable plastic bag.

“Are all of those from a single object?” I asked.

“I’d guess so, but your guess is good as mine,” Haas said. With his wide face, gray goatee, and merry smile, he resembled, for the moment, an aging folk singer. “All I can say is, this is really strange.”

Almost twenty people were working on the Huaricanga mound, shoveling away the obscuring loess. Half of them were local workers; Peru has so many ruins from so many cultures that in many small towns archaeological labor is a flourishing blue-collar trade. The others were graduate students from Peru and the United States. After two days of labor, workers and students were halfway through clearing off the top platform and the staircases leading to it; the layout of the structure was visible enough to map. The temple, for the mound was surely built for religious reasons, was laid out in a wide, shallow U about 150 feet long and 60 feet high, with a sunken plaza between the arms. In its day its grandeur would have overwhelmed the visitor. Little wonder: at the time of its construction, the Huaricanga temple was among the world’s biggest buildings.

In college I read a one-volume history of the world by the distinguished historian William H. McNeill. Called, simply enough, A World History, and published in 1967, it began with what McNeill and most other historians then considered the four wellsprings of human civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, in modern Iraq, home of Sumer, oldest of all complex polities; the Nile Delta, in Egypt; the Indus Valley, in Pakistan; and, in east central China, the valley of the Huang He, more familiar to Westerners as the Yellow River. If McNeill were writing A World History today, discoveries like those at Huaricanga would force him to add two more areas to the book. The first and better known is Mesoamerica, where half a dozen societies, the Olmec first among them, rose in the centuries before Christ. The second is the Peruvian littoral, home of a much older civilization that has come to light only in the twenty-first century. *18

Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.

A few decades ago, many researchers would have included jump-starting Andean civilization on the honor roll of Mesoamerican accomplishments. The Olmec, it was proposed, visited Peru, and the locals, dutiful students, copied their example. Today we know that technologically sophisticated societies arose in Peru first—the starting date, to archaeologists’ surprise, keeps getting pushed back. Between 3200 and 2500 B.C., large-scale public buildings, the temple at Huaricanga among them, rose up in at least seven settlements on the Peruvian coast—an extraordinary efflorescence for that time and place. When the people of the Norte Chico were building these cities, there was only one other urban complex on earth: Sumer.

In the last chapter, I described how archaeologists have spent the last century pushing back their estimates of when Indians were first present in the Americas. Now I turn to a parallel intellectual journey: the growth in understanding of the antiquity, diversity, complexity, and technological sophistication of Indian societies. Much as historians of early Eurasia focus on the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Huang He Valleys, historians of the Americas focus on Mesoamerica and the Andes.

Like the Eurasian centers of civilization, Mesoamerica and the Andes were places where complex, long-lasting cultural traditions began. But there was a striking difference between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres: the degree of interaction between their great cultural centers. A constant traffic in goods and ideas among Eurasian societies allowed them to borrow or steal each other’s most interesting innovations: algebra from Islam, paper from China, the spinning wheel (probably) from India, the telescope from Europe. “In my lectures, I put this very baldly,” Alfred Crosby told me. “I say that nobody in Europe or Asia ever invented anything—they got it from somebody else.” He added, “When you think of the dozen most important things ever invented—the wheel, the alphabet, the stirrup, metallurgy—none of them were invented in Europe. But they all got used there.”

By contrast, there was very little exchange of people, goods, or ideas between Mesoamerica and the Andes. Travelers on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean had to cross desert and the Hindu Kush, both formidable obstacles. But there was no road whatsoever across the two thousand miles of jagged mountains and thick rainforest between Mesoamerica and the Andes. In fact, there still isn’t any road. The section of the Pan-American Highway that runs between them remains unfinished, because engineers can neither go around nor bulldoze through the swamps and mountains at the narrow Panama-Colombia border. Almost entirely by themselves for thousands of years, these two centers of civilization were so different that researchers today have difficulty finding a conceptual vocabulary that applies to both. Nonetheless, the tale of their mostly separate progress through time deserves prominent placement in any history of the world.

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