GATEWAY: Archeologist Robert Benferís team found this clay sculpture of a frowning face at the Buena Vista site near Lima. The disk, marks the position of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. (Robert Benfer / University of Missouri)
Celestial Find at Ancient Andes Site
The discovery in Peru of a 4,200-year-old temple and observatory pushes back estimates of the rise of an advanced culture in the Americas.
By Thomas H. Maugh II
Times Staff Writer
Archeologists working high in the Peruvian Andes have discovered the oldest known celestial observatory in the Americas — a 4,200-year-old structure marking the summer and winter solstices that is as old as the stone pillars of Stonehenge.
The observatory was built on the top of a 33-foot-tall pyramid with precise alignments and sightlines that provide an astronomical calendar for agriculture, archeologist Robert Benfer of the University of Missouri said.
The people who built the observatory — three millenniums before the emergence of the Incas — are a mystery, but they achieved a level of art and science that archeologists say they did not know existed in the region until at least 800 years later.
Among the most impressive finds was a massive clay sculpture ó an ancient version of the modern frowning “sad face” icon flanked by two animals. The disk, protected from looters beneath thousands of years of dirt and debris, marked the position of the winter solstice.
“It’s really quite a shock to everyone Ö to see sculptures of that sophistication coming out of a building of that time period,” said archeologist Richard L. Burger of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the discovery.
The find adds strong evidence to support the recent idea that a sophisticated civilization developed in South America in the pre-ceramic era, before the development of fired pottery sometime after 1500 BC.Continue reading