Peru and the Pace of Civilizational Change

The New Scientist story’s first two ‘graphs had me cold:

The first American civilisation sprang up rapidly on the central Peruvian coast more than 5000 years ago, new research has revealed.

In less than 150 years, people went “from small hunter-gatherer bands to great big permanent communities with monumental architectures,” says Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, US, whose group carbon-dated samples from 13 of more than 20 sites in the Norte Chico region …

That is fascinating. After all, it is hard to imagine how, in the absence of either a catalyst or some other massive environmental pressure, a society could go from bands to Bauhaus (to paraphrase a Tom Wolfe piece) in a scant 150 years. In historical context, that rapidity is far more dramatic than anything we’re experiencing today, putting to rest the notion that we live in some sort of technology-driven societal singularity.

But I have a bad habit. Before incorporating this sort of juicy tidbit into my repertoire and using it in too many speeches for my own good, I like to go back and read the source. So earlier today I read the original piece in the current issue of the journal Nature (“Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico region in Peru”), and I can’t for the life of me come to the same conclusion as the New Scientist’s writer. Maybe it’s the cold here in Canada over the holidays, but I’m left feeling like I’m missing something (assistance appreciated!), or that the NS’s writer is coming to an unwarranted conclusion about the pace of societal change in Late Archaic Peruvian history.

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