But what sustained such a trading center and drew travelers to it? Was it food? Shady and her team found the remains of sardines and anchovies, which must have come from the coast 14 miles to the west, in the excavations. But they also found evidence that the Caral people ate squash, sweet potatoes and beans. Shady theorized that Caral’s early farmers diverted area rivers into trenches and canals, which still crisscross the SupeValley today, to irrigate their fields. But because she found no traces of maize (corn) or other grains, which can be traded or stored and used to tide a population over in difficult times, she concluded that Caral’s trade leverage was not based on stockpiling food supplies.
It was evidence of another crop in the excavations that gave Shady the best clue to the mystery of Caral’s success. In nearly every excavated building, her team discovered great quantities of cotton seeds, fibers and textiles. Her theory fell into place when a large fishing net, unearthed at an unrelated dig on Peru’s coast, turned out to be as old as Caral. “The farmers of Caral grew the cotton that the fishermen needed to make the nets,” Shady speculates. “And the fishermen gave them shellfish and dried fish in exchange for these nets.” In essence, the people of Caral enabled fishermen to work with larger and more effective nets, which made the resources of the sea more readily available. The Caral people probably used dried squash as flotation devices for nets and also as containers, thus obviating any need for ceramics.
Eventually Caral would spawn 17 other pyramid complexes scattered across the 35-square-mile area of the SupeValley. Then, around 1600 B.C., for reasons that may never be answered, the Caral civilization toppled, though it didn’t disappear overnight. “They had time to protect some of their architectural structures, burying them discreetly,” says Shady. Other nearby areas, such as Chupacigarro, Lurihuasi and Miraya, became centers of power. But based on Caral’s size and scope, Shady believes that it is indeed the mother city of the Incan civilization.
She plans to continue excavating Caral and says she would someday like to build a museum on the site. “So many questions still remain,” she says. “Who were these people? How did they control the other populations? What was their main god?”