Archaeologists surveying a coastal Peruvian valley have discovered the oldest image yet of a major South American deity. The 4000-year-old etched gourd, which depicts a fanged figure called the Staff God, may shed light on the origins of symbolic art in a later culture.
The archaeologists--Jonathan Haas of The Field Museum in Chicago, Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and Alvaro Ruiz, co-director of the Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico--are studying the Norte Chico region of the Peruvian coast. From 2600 B.C. to 2000 B.C., during what's known as the Late Preceramic Period, people in coastal valleys built complex towns with administrative buildings, stone monuments, and large sunken plazas that resemble ceremonial structures that appear later in the Andes. Yet little is known about Norte Chico's religion at that time, because the society apparently didn't have ceramics, gold, or decorative stonework.
Two new gourds are starting to fill in the blanks. The team found them in July 2002, while scouting looted burial grounds in a coastal valley about 190 kilometers north of Lima. Radiocarbon dating of one fragment indicates that it dates back to 2250 B.C., the researchers report in the May-June issue of Archaeology. It features a carved figure with fangs and splayed feet. Its right arm carries a staff, while the left ends in what looks like a snake's head. "Within the tradition of Andean iconography, it's got all the elements" of a deity called the Staff God, Haas says. Another, undated gourd displays the same image. The Staff God appears later in Andean prehistory and across several Andean cultures.
"I think this is very exciting discovery," says Helaine Silverman, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who works in Peru. There has been a long-standing debate whether a later culture--the Chavin, which went on to influence Peruvian societies--had its roots on the coast or in the highlands. "All of this evidence may add weight to the argument that the origins of the Chavin religious art style are coastal," Silverman says. She also notes that because the icons are on gourds--which are easy to decorate and transport--rather than painstakingly carved into stone, religious symbolism might not yet have been dominated by the powerful. "Instead, it was literally in the hands of local people," she says.