Who is Ruth Shady Solís?

The BBC named Dr. Shady Solís one of the 100 most influential women in the world in 2020. Her outstanding work conserving an ancient Peruvian archeological site, Caral, caught their notice. Since 1994 she and her team have excavated at Caral. From carbon dating, it was proven that it was the oldest civilization in the Americas with housing, monuments and temples built 5000 years ago. To give perspective, Machu Picchu was built 550 years ago, the great pyramid of Khufu in Egypt about 2600 years ago and the oldest Maya pyramids 3000 years ago. The civilization at Caral flourished 4400 years before the Inka. This is a major discovery. The Peruvian Congress awarded her a Medal of Honor. Why is it that I’ve never heard of Dr. Shady Solís before this week?

Ruth Shady Solís Photo: Ruth Madelen Luna Cruz

In 1955, she was a girl of 9 in an archeology club. Ever since then Ruth Shady Solís knew she wanted to discover ancient civilizations. Her father encouraged her by giving her books on the subject and taking her to see archeological sites. Her friends and her mother thought she would be penniless if she pursued it as a career. So Ruth Shady Solís studied anthropology/archeology during the day, and education at night as a backup.

After graduating from college with a PhD in anthropology, she became a professor at the University of San Marcos, Peru. She and her students would camp at the Caral site in the Supe Valley (called Norte Chico) 180K north of Lima and 26K from the coast, to study the mounded hills and begin to excavate on the weekends. Her colleagues laughed at her choice of location to study. There aren’t even ceramic shards there, they’d say. How important or civilized can it be? Those mounds are just hillocks, there’s nothing there, a geologist told her. Dr. Shady Solís was determined to prove them wrong. She did so quite spectacularly.

Map of Peru, South America Image: JRC (ECHO, EC)

The dig uncovered six pyramids, the largest is 28 meters tall. In the central plaza, there is an obelisk that is a sundial! Archeologists found developed irrigation systems, food from fishing and agriculture, musical instruments, and a knotted khipu (see my previous post). Farmers grew four colors of cotton; dark brown, light brown, cream and red that weavers made into textiles. The city was a religious center, with evidence of the use of fire pits and wind instruments in rituals. The full name is the Sacred City of Caral.

Welcome to the Sacred City of Caral Photo: Esteban Cuya

This city where 3000 people lived fills a large site, 60 hectares (150 acres). The archeologists found no evidence of weapons, warfare, or fortified walls. Researchers unearthed twenty more settlements within the Norte Chico region from the same time period, dried fish far inland showed trade exchanges as did cotton nets on the coast. They found a complex civilization, yet without pottery. Ruth Shady Solís worked with her team for 13 years before receiving recognition for what they had uncovered.

As a woman researcher, it was difficult for Ruth Shady Solís to gain credibility with her male peers. However, in 2001 carbon dating from labs in the United States and Germany showed that the Caral site was occupied beginning 5000 years ago. The age of the civilization was accepted abroad, then in Peru.

Ruth Shady Solís cares for the historical significance of what she and her team have found. She also works to improve the economic lives of the people who live around the site through education about the Caral civilization, music lessons, and information about the four colors of cotton that the ancient peoples grew. Colored cotton is an important crop to help the villagers financially. She wants her compatriots to feel pride in their long history of civilization and not focus so entirely on events since the Spanish arrived. The technologies of water engineering and anti-seismic building are gifts from the ancients to our present time. Ruth Shady Solís believes that Peru’s past can enrich its future. That is her quest, to connect a conflicted Peru with a peaceful past.

Viva Ruth Shady Solís! Long live this determined woman who has shed so much light on Peruvian history! ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Caral Archeological Site, Peru Photo: Kyle Thayer

Rebecca Cuningham

12 thoughts on “Who is Ruth Shady Solís?

  1. This is fascinating, Rebecca! I hadn’t heard of Dr. Solis or her discovery. As a child, I toyed with the idea of being an archeologist. Silly me, though, I thought all the discoveries had already been made! LOL!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Janet. I was thinking about pursuing archeology too, before Spanish sang its siren song. Looks like I could have combined them. 🙂 Yes, there have been more discoveries in the last 30 years than I would have imagined!

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  2. Rebecca, thanks for bringing Dr. Ruth Shady Solís to our attention. I’m not at all surprised that her male peers discredited her work. What’s even more important is that this earlier period of human civilization was a peaceful one. She and her team found no evidence of weapons, warfare, or fortified walls. I’m currently learning about this prehistoric period of female-male partnership with the worship of the Mother Goddess in Riane Eisler’s book, The Chalice & The Blade: Our History, Our Future (1987, 1995).

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Rosaliene. I found that discovery inspiring as well; a culture with 1000 years of peace. The book you’re reading sounds interesting. I look forward to hearing more about it.

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  3. I too had never heard of her, so thanks for this introduction. Sadly, few archeologists, female or male, become at all well known, yet they tell us so much that we otherwise couldn’t find out.

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