Ancient temple and theater 3,500 years older than Machu Picchu discovered in Peru


Archaeologists in Peru have unearthed the remains of what they believe are a 4,000-year-old temple and theater, shining a new light on the origins of complex religions in the region.

The team began studying the new archaeological site of La Otra Banda, Cerro Las Animas, in June. Last year, the local government alerted them to looting that had been taking place near the northern Peruvian town of Zaña, according to a press release from the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, Wednesday.

They excavated a plot roughly 33 feet long and 33 feet wide, finding signs of ancient walls made of mud and clay at just six feet deep.

“It was so surprising that these very ancient structures were so close to the modern surface,” Luis Muro Ynoñán, a research scientist at the Field Museum who led the team, said in the release.

After digging deeper, archaeologists found “one section” of a large temple, Muro Ynoñán said, adding that “one of the most exciting” finds was a small theater “with a backstage area and a staircase that led to a stage-like platform.”

“This could have been used to perform ritual performances in front of a selected audience,” he added

Pieces of what appear to be parts of a 4,000-year-old ceremonial temple in Peru. - Peru's Pontifical Catholic University/ReutersPieces of what appear to be parts of a 4,000-year-old ceremonial temple in Peru. - Peru's Pontifical Catholic University/Reuters

Pieces of what appear to be parts of a 4,000-year-old ceremonial temple in Peru. – Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University/Reuters

One of the theater’s staircases was flanked by mud panels with an elaborate carved design of a mythological bird-like creature, according to the release. The figure resembled other images of mythological creatures dating to the Initial Period, around 2,000 to 900 BC, giving clues to when the temple was built.

“The Initial Period is important because it’s when we first start to see evidence of an institutionalized religion in Peru,” Muro Ynoñan said, adding that the discovery “tells us about the early origins of religion” in the region.

“We still know very little about how and under which circumstances complex belief systems emerged in the Andes, and now we have evidence about some of the earliest religious spaces that people were creating in this part of the world,” he said.

The finds predate the country’s best-known archaeological site, the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, which is believed to have been built by the Inca Empire in the 15th century, by about 3,500 years. They also predate the pre-Inca cultures of Moche and Nazca, researchers said.

“We don’t know what these people called themselves, or how other people referred to them. All we know about them comes from what they created: their houses, temples, and funerary goods,” Muro Ynoñan said.

He added that the “people here created complex religious systems and perceptions about their cosmos,” with religion being “an important aspect of the emergence of political authority.”

Muro Ynoñán said he has a “special” and “deep” connection to the discovery since both his mother’s and father’s families come from the area, “so it was really incredible to come face to face with these depictions of an ancient god that was so important for these ancient groups.”

A team of archeologists work on what appear to be parts of a 4,000-year-old ceremonial temple buried in a sand dune in northern Peru. - Peru's Pontifical Catholic University/ReutersA team of archeologists work on what appear to be parts of a 4,000-year-old ceremonial temple buried in a sand dune in northern Peru. - Peru's Pontifical Catholic University/Reuters

A team of archeologists work on what appear to be parts of a 4,000-year-old ceremonial temple buried in a sand dune in northern Peru. – Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University/Reuters

Archaeologists also found several large murals painted on the walls. Muro Ynoñán collected samples from paint pigments that he said he plans to analyze in a lab, as well as send samples off for carbon dating to confirm the age of the site.

The Andean country hosts an array of archaeological finds from pre-Hispanic times.

In August, Peruvian archaeologists unearthed a 3,000-year-old tomb that they believe might have honored an elite religious leader.

A few months prior, a more than 1,000-year-old adolescent mummy wrapped in a funerary bundle was discovered on the outskirts of the modern capital, Lima.

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