What happened to Norte Chico?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, joined today by Sarah Dowdey. Hey, Sarah!

Sarah Dowdey: Hey, Katie.

Katie Lambert: Since you're the green editor, I thought this was a good question for you. Did climate change create a mysterious civilization 5,000 years ago?

Sarah Dowdey: We think it did.

Katie Lambert: And we think that because of some fish bones we found in a desert.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: So let's start with what they did find. In 2001, archaeologists in the Norte Chico region of Peru found fish bones in a desert, along with these giant stone mounds.

Sarah Dowdey: But not that giant. If you were just going on the size of the mounds alone, they don't seem super impressive. They're no more than 85 feet tall, but still, there's something important about them.

Katie Lambert: And what would that be, Sarah?

Sarah Dowdey: They're really, really old.

Katie Lambert: Like older than the pyramids old.

Sarah Dowdey: Older than the pyramids, much older than any of the Incan or Mayan pyramids too, at least by 1,000 years.

Katie Lambert: So, it could be that we've found the first complex civilization in the Americas, period. So, let's talk a little bit more about what these archaeologists found and why it matters, so we've got these massive manmade structures, not too massive, but massive enough.

Sarah Dowdey: Pretty sizeable.

Katie Lambert: Seashells and fish bones in the middle of the desert, some anthropomorphic figurines, which were found in the city, and circular plazas and houses built from adobe, wooden poles, cane and mud.

Sarah Dowdey: But the seashells and fish bones are the big part of the mystery here. We're really far away from water. There's no vegetation. It's 10 miles from the ocean, so how did they get there, right?

Katie Lambert: And why would there be a civilization around a place where there is no water and no vegetation?

Sarah Dowdey: NPR calls it a moonscape. That is a good - and if you look at pictures, if you look up Norte Chico online, you'll see. It does not look like its part of this world.

Katie Lambert: The theory goes that fishermen on the coast of Peru survived on the sea, and they were hunter gatherers. When I think of hunter gatherers, I usually think of people picking berries.

Sarah Dowdey: Or cavemen hunting mammoths and stuff.

Katie Lambert: Well, exactly, but you can also be the kind of hunter gatherer that gathers up clams and mussels on the seaside of Peru. But in 3000 BC, their whole lifestyle changed.

Sarah Dowdey: And that's because the El Nino regular weather event started to shift up a little. El Nino brings heavy rains and warms up the ocean around South America, and it's a cyclical event. It usually is tied to the hurricane season and happens every couple of years. But when the El Nino cycle started picking up, it started to really mess with the climate of Norte Chico or the coastal area.

Katie Lambert: Right. There was a lot more rain, and the ocean temperature went up, which was the kicker because all the cold water fish left, and the clams and mussels died.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. And there was also a lot of rain and flooding.

Katie Lambert: So, they decided to move inland, being the enterprising hunter gatherers that they were. But that changed everything. So, climate change had made this area, the Norte Chico area, into something more fertile because there was so much more rain.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and it was easy to irrigate. People actually still have simple irrigation systems in the area.

Katie Lambert: So, they learned how to irrigate. They started cultivating crops like squash, cotton, beans and avocados, and they traded them for fish like anchovies with the coastal people, so that's how we ended up with fish bones in the middle of the desert. Mystery 1 solved.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, it was a symbiotic relationship between the fishermen who remained at the coast and the people living in these centralized cities because they were growing cotton, weaving nets. They could trade those to the fishermen. They, in return, would get fish, and it all worked out. It was the start of civilization in the Americas.

Katie Lambert: Which is a pretty big accomplishment, I would say, by these little hunter gatherers in Peru.

Sarah Dowdey: Yes.

Katie Lambert: So, they've got flourishing trade, and they start building. Because of this kind of food production and trade, they need more centralized societies, so they all start building houses and developing a government and possibly even developing an organized religion, which is why we ended up with those little anthropomorphic figurines.

Sarah Dowdey: Not to mention building these mounds, which are actually described as birthday cakes?

Katie Lambert: Yeah, big stone birthday cakes.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, kind of like the size of that. They covered them in plaster and would paint them colors and probably had a religion and had all the hallmarks of civilization, except a few, right?

Katie Lambert: Right. The things that the archaeologists didn't find were perhaps more significant, almost.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: They didn't find pottery. They didn't find weapons or art or dependency on a staple grain crop.

Sarah Dowdey: The lack of ceramics seems especially odd to me, that you could have the technology to build these enormous mounds. They actually wove baskets out of reeds to carry these huge loads of rocks and plaster to cover them.

Katie Lambert: Right, it took a lot of energy, and they were constantly remodeling and re-plastering things, so it wasn't like they just built them and that was the end of it. It was an ongoing labor of love.

Sarah Dowdey: It seems like ceramics would be born from that.

Katie Lambert: But they haven't found a single shard of pottery anywhere.

Sarah Dowdey: No.

Katie Lambert: And because of that, some people say you wouldn't consider it a civilization at all because ceramics is one of the hallmarks of a civilization, as well as urbanization, having urban centers, which this one maybe did and maybe didn't.

Sarah Dowdey: They had meeting places.

Katie Lambert: They did, which is part of the reason for those sunken plazas.

Sarah Dowdey: They also might have had a proto writing system called Quipu, which was - it looks like knots on strings, basically. It could have just been a mnemonic device, but something, some kind of rudimentary writing, perhaps. And they might have also had music. Several flutes have been found.

Katie Lambert: And we have a great quote from Professor Winifred Kramer, who is an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University. She said, "The people who built the first of these structures had no model to go by, no precedent to use in building a monument. It's a bit like deciding to build a functioning spaceship in your backyard and succeeding."

Sarah Dowdey: I like that.

Katie Lambert: I love that because seriously, think about it. You had absolutely no model. This is the very start of civilization in the Americas.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, we're used to seeing the pyramids and seeing the Incan and Mayan pyramids, so these little hills don't look like much to our eyes, but imagine if you'd never seen something like that.

Katie Lambert: And the other cool thing is that, of course, this is the exact place where we stopped being hunter gatherers and started forming into societies. This civilization may have spawned other Andean cultures, and it seems like some of those traditions went out across South America as well.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely. But like most civilizations, this did not last forever. They were around for about 1,000 years before there was another shift in climate that made irrigation too difficult. So, they might have abandoned their little complex of cities, but they did adapt, so presumably these people lived on to start up new civilizations or at least new communities.

Katie Lambert: Right. And they're not the only civilization that was affected by this sort of climate shift. Some people say that China's Tang Dynasty, which fell in 907 AD, may have been also because of climate shift, which altered the monsoon season.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and around the same time, oddly enough, on the other side of the world, the Mayan civilization started to fall, and people have linked that to a lot of different things. By the end of the Mayan civilization, they were in big trouble for many reasons.

Katie Lambert: It's hard to pinpoint one cause.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. They had some problems by then, but a series of droughts might have been what did them in. They were already maxed out for the food they could grow for the size of their population, and if you have a drought for a few years, and you don't know when it's gonna end, that's it.

Katie Lambert: And that was the point. An agriculture based society in the face of those kinds of changes has to adapt or it ends.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: And that's it.

Sarah Dowdey: So, it's an interesting thing to think about in the face of water shortages, just the ways the civilization has to adapt to move on.

Katie Lambert: And that's the final word from our green editor. So if you'd like to check out the article, "Did Climate Change Create a Mysterious Civilization 5000 Years Ago," and also check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog and Sarah's green blog, go to our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com.

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