|23 April 2003
Found the oldest religious icon in Americas
Gourd fragments unearthed in Peru have pushed back clear evidence of religion in the Americas by a thousand years, to 2250 BCE. The two key pieces are incised with an image of the "staff god", showing a fierce feline face with fangs, clawed feet, a snake for one hand and a staff -- a sign of leadership -- held in the other. It was a major deity in later Andean cultures, was discovered at a burial site in the Patavilca River valley and dated using carbon isotopes. Unlike undecorated gourds found elsewhere, it was likely inscribed with a hot implement and placed in a grave due to its ceremonial value. The gourd could also have served soup, though such details await a residue analysis of the fragment.
The site is in the Norte Chico region, 200 kilometres north of Lima, which was densely populated from 2600 to 2000 BCE. The people left little graphic evidence behind as, while they built large stone monuments and pyramids, they did not sculpt or decorate stone, and lacked pottery. They did embellish textiles, but only small pieces survive and their dyes have faded away. The cartoon-like image on the gourd is the oldest clear depiction yet found.
The team of US and Peruvian archaeologists that found the gourd were studying the beginnings of irrigation. Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University says implementing such technology requires a highly organised society, and that religious symbols are also important in complex groups. The gourd fragments were in a dry, sandy burial site, which had been looted in modern times, leaving them on the surface. "This appears to be the oldest identifiable religious icon found in the Americas. It indicates that organized religion began in the Andes more than 1,000 years earlier than previously thought," said Jonathan Haas of The Field Museum in Chicago. "We have this window back to the beginnings of civilization ... to the role of religion and the emergence of a complex society, the role of religion in the development of social hierarchy, government, power, and leadership," he said.
Also found in the area were 75-foot-high (25-meter) mounds with staircases and ceremonial hearths with plazas below, as well as housing for various strata of society. Some 26 communities have been found that likely contained thousands of residents each, reflecting a much more complex civilization compared to earlier hunting and gathering bands that populated the Peruvian highlands or small fishing villages along the coast.
Sources; BBC News/New Scientist/Reuters (14 April 2003)
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