Archeologists sifting through a looted cemetery have uncovered a 4,000-year-old gourd segment bearing an engraved image of the principal deity worshipped by ancient Western cultures for thousands of years -- in a find that pushes back by a millennium the suspected origin of organized religion in the Americas.
The black-rimmed etching depicts the staff god, a figure that, until the coming of European explorers and missionaries in the 16th century, dominated the belief system of civilizations that gave birth to organized societal structure, architecture and, it now seems, religion on the Western front, the relic seekers told United Press International.
The archaic figure -- its jaguar-like fangs bared, feet splayed, the left outstretched arm ending in a snake head, the right gripping the hallmark staff -- appears in various incarnations in the religious renderings of societies that once flourished around the Andes mountains.
As reported in the May-June issue of the journal Archaeology, the drawing scratched or burned on the grayish, bone-dry bowl piece -- recovered in a region that served as the cultural hub of its day -- represents the earliest known rendition of the divinity, scientists said.
"Like the cross, the staff god is a clearly recognizable religious icon," said Jonathan Haas, MacArthur curator of North American anthropology at The Field Museum in Chicago. "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."
Two days after the find of half of the softball-sized bowl, investigators scouring a nearby unmarked burial ground turned up a second, smaller gourd section. Found on a sand-dune terrace overlooking a river valley, the fragment was incised and painted with a similar depiction. The latter piece, which has not yet been dated, measures a mere 3 inches by 2 inches.
"It was most fortuitous that the little guy is on this tiny piece," Haas said in a telephone interview.
The small figure offers big clues about the history of religion in South America, scientists said.
"This image is pervasive throughout the region's Andean cultures," said Winifred Creamer, professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "The staff god was worshipped until the Europeans showed up in 1532."
The researchers did not realize the magnitude of their discovery until they returned to the laboratory.
As Haas carefully removed centuries of dirt ground into the gourd surface and beheld the figure emerging beneath the grime, he could barely contain his surprise or excitement.
"I thought it looked like an early piece, but when I showed it to my (fellow archeologists), they said, 'This just can't be!'" he recalled.
However, a technique widely used to determine the age of ancient objects that once breathed life -- be they plant or animal -- revealed the vessel's astonishing antiquity. The method, called radiocarbon dating, traced the scooped out fruit shell to 2250 B.C.
The previous record for the earliest known religious images -- also portraying the staff god but on the more sophisticated background of gold, pottery, stone and textiles -- stood at an estimated 1200 B.C.
Depictions of the deity crop up through 3,500 years of Andean civilization, culminating in Viracocha, the god of creation in the belief system of the Inca Indians, Haas told UPI.
"The staff god, also known as Dios de los Baculos, is an iconic motif with a long and broad history throughout several Andean cultures," said Peruvian archeologist Alvaro Ruiz. He is co-director of the Norte Chico Archeological Project, a U.S.-Peruvian collaboration to determine the origin of the coastal civilizations of Peru.
Haas compared the finding to that of portrayals of the earliest Egyptian gods, whose imprint dominates the pyramids that held royal remains and most treasured possessions.
"The first pyramid was built in 2600 B.C. so this is contemporaneous with that," he told UPI. "This is the first known representation of a deity that goes on for thousands of years."
The team discovered the perfectly preserved artifact in a plundered ancient burial ground east of the modern-day town of Barranca. Only stone outcrops blanketed with windblown sand remain of what archeologists speculate was once a major ceremonial center.
The site, 120 miles north of Lima, lies in the Patavilca River Valley, one of four coastal dales comprising the Norte Chico region of the Peruvian coast. Densely populated between 2600 and 2000 B.C., the area is seen as the ancestral home of the Andean civilizations that culminated in the Inca.
"To date, 26 major centers have been recorded in the Norte Chico region, all with monumental architecture, large-scale ceremonial structures and complex residential and administrative architecture," Creamer said. "It is a truly unique concentration of settlements anywhere in the Americas."
The sites lack pottery, which was not introduced on the Peruvian coast until about 1900 B.C.
"I am ... fascinated by the 'gourd god' because gourds were such a common item of material culture in ancient coastal society," said Helaine Silverman, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Rather than being painted or modeled on temple walls as would happen in the succeeding 'Initial Period' (so-called after the initial introduction of pottery-making in the Central Andes)," she told UPI, "here we have religious iconography in highly portable and, presumably, personal form."