Role Modeling Sustainable Living through the Ancient City of Caral-Supe

As President Obama urges world leaders to tackle climate change in Paris for COP21, members from the 124 nation group of the International Union of Architects plan to present to the Paris summit the Caral Letter, a letter celebrating the ancient city of Caral-Supe in Peru as a model for sustainable living in the twenty-first century.  This initiative is an example of how archaeology can be used to engage the problems our society currently faces by studying the past for ways to plan for a better future.   

The city of Caral overlooking the Supe river valley.

The city of Caral-Supe was home to the Notre Chico people and can be traced back to the Late Archaic period of the Central Andes and is also the oldest center of civilization in the Americas.  Caral is 5000 years old and 626 hectares, situated on a dry desert terrace overlooking the green valley of the Supe river.

Caral is famous for the ways its engineers developed the complex city using basic tools, representing inspiration to current world leaders and engineers trying to tackle climate change.  The city incorporates sunken amphitheaters, pyramids, and underground ducts that once channeled winds to keep fires burning (  Moreover, Caral is situated in a seismically active area, and engineers of Caral innovated the use of flexible foundations called “shicras” to stabilize structures in the city.  

A picture of one of the structures in the city of Caral.

The city also epitomizes a message about how our society should respect the environment.  “This society was very interested in developing in harmony with nature. They never occupied the valley, they didn’t settle on productive land. Fertile fields were deities,” said Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady, who conducted the first excavations at Caral in 1996 and brought the site to world attention (  The city of Caral-Supe is an admirable example for architects to present to the climate summit not only because it serves to inspire current world leaders and engineers with the extraordinary tasks people accomplished with only basic tools, but also because the people of Caral intimately respected their environment – a pertinent message for world leaders looking to solve climate change.

The city of Caral-Supe shows that archaeology can be a means of tackling the problems our society faces today by providing examples about how we faced – and overcame – similar challenges posed in the past.  

“We turn to the past to see how civilization was organized 5,000 years ago, thinking about their commitment to nature, their cosmic vision,” said Jose Arispe, one of Peru’s leading architects and an adviser with the International Union of Architects. (


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Further Reading

Gigapan of Caral-Supe

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Understanding Climate Change with Baobab Trees

Understanding the environment is an essential aspect of an archaeologist’s job to understand the context in which societies formed and lived and artifacts are found.  More specifically, trees can serve as valuable records that describe the climate of an area over the period of hundreds or thousands of years.  Researchers in Southern Africa are using the analysis of radiocarbon dating and tree rings in Baobab trees to interpret how the climate has changed in Southern Africa over the past thousand years, and to use these interpretations to try to form ideas about the societies that developed in these areas.

A Baobab tree in northeastern South Africa

Since tree growth is dependant upon the environment, it can be a good indicator of the climate at a specific time.  Tree growth is a complex process, but temperature and soil moisture temperature can be the leading factors contributing to tree growth, thus tree growth can tell us a lot about the temperature and soil moisture of an area at a specific time period, among other things.  


Radiocarbon dating is a common process of evaluating the age of a tree, and radiocarbon samples can also be taken from a tree and can be used to determine such things as the moisture and temperature of tree cellulose at a given time period.  Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in an object relative to other carbon isotopes in the object and measuring the amount it has decayed over time.  


Tree rings can also usually be used to determine the age of tree, and act as a record of the quality of the tree’s health throughout its lifespan.  Tree ring growth varies with the climate, and thus it can be strong in the spring or weak in the winter and used to determine differences in tree health and of the wider climate’s condition at specific time spans.


Researchers analysed the Baobab trees from Northeastern South Africa for the amount of waterfall in the region and included the timeframe of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the period of time they studied.  The group of researchers from Britain, Romania, and South Africa determined that, “The wettest period was AD1075 or [1075CE] in the Medieval Warm Period, and the driest periods were AD1635, AD1695 and AD1805 during the Little Ice Age.”1

A map of Limpop-Shashe Basin

The data collected can also be used to try to better understand the region at the time the first Bantu-speaking farmers settled the land.  Better understanding the environment in which these farmers developed their land can be valuable knowledge in determining the political and economic systems of the area, of which were based upon the success of agriculture to allow for specialization at the time.2


Recognizing the importance of evaluating the environment in interpreting the context in which people lived and artifacts are found can help better fathom our perceptions of an area at a specific time.  The analysis of radiocarbon dating and the use of tree rings are important tools that researchers can use in their experiments, and this reality is manifested in the importance researchers placed on their analysis of Baobab trees to understand how the climate changed – and how people might have adapted to its change – in the South Africa.  




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