Oldest Urban Site in the Americas Found, Experts Claim

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In international news reports, Fuchs describes the image as a "human sacrificer" who is "standing with open arms, holding a ritual knife in one hand and a human head in the other."

Perez, however, told National Geographic News that it is unclear what the man holds in his hands.

"It could be a head he has in one hand, or it could be a shield," he said. "As for the other hand, it is unclear what the figure is holding. It could be a cane used by officials instead of a knife, or another type of arm."

International news reports also report that a similar image was found in the Sipan tombs, which were uncovered in the late 1980s on Peru's northern coast.

But Perez said the imagery found at Sechin Bajo is distinct from that found at Sipan.

Defining Feature

For most people the Inca are the standout contributors to Andean history. (See photos of Inca ruins in Peru.)

But a number of pre-Inca civilizations left archaeological traces such as tombs and stone murals that, thanks in part to a contemporary development boom in Peru, are increasingly being uncovered.

Kit Nelson, an archaeologist from Tulane University, told National Geographic News that the circular plaza at Sechin Bajo falls within the Preceramic-Late Archaic period, which has been studied at other nearby sites.

One of those sites is Caral, which is dated to about 5,000 years ago and is still the largest and most complex of the Preceramic sites.

Other sites in the Norte Chico Valley, roughly 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of Sechin Bajo, date to about the same period.

"These projects also have early dates and sunken circular plazas, a defining feature of the Preceramic era," said Nelson, who was not involved in the latest dig.

The function of these circular plazas, as argued by researchers working at Preceramic sites, "seems to be associated with monumental architecture or [shortened] pyramids, and probably are civil or ceremonial in function," she said.

Nelson also noted that most of the previously known sites are dated to about 2000 to 2500 B.C., and that there is still much to be learned about this important period in Peruvian prehistory.

"So this date is not surprising, and it is also possible that these dates will be found in other areas on [Peru's] central coast," she said.

Anchor Point

In fact, many experts think that Peru's central coastal region was a key anchor point for cultural development.

"We are discovering more and more that this late Preceramic and Late Archaic period was a time of real culture revolution on the Andean coast," said Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

"It was a time when the Andes became distinct, an uninterrupted cultural chain going through the central coast in an unbroken fashion for 5,000 years—all the way up to the Inca," he said.

Haas, who has talked to researchers at Sechin Bajo since the news reports broke, works on the pre-Inca site of Caballete.

"Finding a plaza in that region isn't that surprising," he added.

But the 5,500-year age estimate could simply be the oldest in a range of possible dates given by carbon-dating techniques, he said.

"The main issue has to do with what are the actual dates on the structure," Haas said. "The key point is whether this is pre-3,000 B.C.—I don't think that has been shown."

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