for National Geographic News
The necklace, dated to 2100 B.C., was uncovered in a burial pit near Lake Titicaca next to the jawbone of an adult skull (see Peru map).
Prior to this discovery, the oldest known gold artifacts in the New World were found in central Peru at sites dated to around 1500 to 1410 B.C.
The burial pit was found near the ancient settlement of Jiskairumoko, which dates back to 3300 B.C.
The beads were hammered from gold nuggets and suggest the development of an early sedentary culture, said lead study author Mark Aldenderfer, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona.
"What this discovery is really telling us is that the people who were living at this site were undergoing a rather profound social and economic transition towards sedentary life," he said.
"Once that process starts, a lot of the social rules of life when you're a hunter-gatherer change dramatically such that different kinds of institutions are beginning to be created," he added.
The discovery is detailed in this week's issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
Aldenderfer and his team found the site during an archaeological survey of the region in the mid-1990s and began excavating it in 1999.
The aim of the project was to understand how hunting and gathering cultures became more sedentary and created small villages.
"As we began to excavate, [the site] in fact did have a lot of very cool information—houses that were never discovered in the Andes before and a variety of other kinds of features," Aldenderfer said.
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