Oldest Observatory in Americas Discovered in Peru

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
May 16, 2006
The oldest astronomical observatory in the Western Hemisphere has been discovered on a hillside a few miles north of Lima, Peru, archaeologists recently reported.

Researchers also found ornate carvings more sophisticated than any before seen in the region.

The site dates back 4,200 years—800 years before such artistic and scientific skill was previously known to have existed in the Americas.

The find was part of an ancient temple built by an unnamed civilization from Peru's "pre-ceramic" period, which predated the better-known Inca culture by thousands of years.

Temple structures, including a giant carving of what looks like a frowning face, align with the directions of sunrise and sunset at critical points in the agricultural calendar, including December 21, the start of the Southern Hemisphere's growing season, and June 21, the end of harvest.

This proves that the ancient civilization was already highly dependent on agriculture, said Robert Benfer, anthropologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who was one of the lead researchers of the find.

"These people went to a lot of trouble to mark the agricultural calendar," Benfer said.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature on the Andes' pre-Inca empires.)

Benfer's team also found a sculpture of a life-size musician playing a shell trumpet.

"The torso is in the round," he said, referring to the fact that the sculpture is three-dimensional and can be viewed from different angles. "The legs are over the edge of a balcony in high relief."

It's a significant artistic find because of the round torso, Benfer explained. All other known Andean sculptures from that era were two-dimensional reliefs and not done in the round.

"We were in no way prepared for finding this kind of stuff," Benfer said. "It was absolutely unexpected."

Benfer's conservation work on the sculpture was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Benfer announced his discovery at an April meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Puerto Rico.

The sculptures were beautifully preserved thanks to the temple-builders' habit of using temples for only a short time before carefully covering them up and building new ones on top.

Even so, Benfer said, archaeologists were lucky that the site hadn't been looted.

Treasure hunters had dug a 20-foot (6-meter) wide hole 7 feet (2 meters) deep into the layers above the site, he said.

The would-be looters stopped only inches from the temple.

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