South America is dominating archaeoastronomy this morning. From the Los Angeles Times:
Archaeologists working high in the Peruvian Andes have discovered the oldest 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 atop a 33-foot-high pyramid with precise alignments and sight lines that provide an astronomical calendar for agriculture, said archaeologist Robert Benfer of the University of Missouri.
The people who built the observatory — three millennia before the emergence of the Incas — are a mystery, but they achieved a level of art and science that archaeologists say they did not know existed in the region until at least 800 years later.
Among the most impressive finds was a huge clay sculpture flanked by two animal figures.
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 … to see sculptures of that sophistication coming out of a building of that time period,” said archaeologist Richard Burger of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the discovery.
The discovery adds strong evidence to 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 B.C.
Benfer’s find “pushes the envelope of civilization farther south and inland from the coast, and adds the important dimension of astronomy to these ancient folks’ way of life,” said archaeologist Michael Moseley of the University of Florida, a noted Peru expert.
The 20-acre site, called Buena Vista, is about 25 miles inland in the Rio Chillon Valley, just north of Lima. “It is on a totally barren, rock-covered hill looking down on a beautiful fertile valley,” said Benfer, who presented the find last month at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Puerto Rico.
The site is remarkably well-preserved, Benfer said, because it rains in the area only about once a year.
Just who the people were who inhabited the region is unknown because writing did not emerge in the Americas for another 2,000 years. For brevity, most call them Andeans.
Benfer and archaeologist Bernardino Ojeda of Peru’s National Agrarian University have been working at Buena Vista for four years. The site contains ruins dating from 10,000 years ago to well into the ceramic era in the first millennium B.C.
The large pyramid and a temple occupy about 2 acres near the center of the site. Radiocarbon dating of cotton and burned twigs found in the temple’s offering pit place its use at about 2200 B.C.
That is about 400 years after the first pyramid was built in Egypt and about the same time that the peoples who would become the Greeks were settling into the Mediterranean.