Peruvian Gourd Reveals Ancient Andean Religion

The image of a fanged deity inscribed on a 4,000-year-old Peruvian gourd indicates an early Andean civilization practiced religion a thousand years earlier than previously believed, scientists said on Monday.

Carbon dating of the fragment found at a looted Peruvian cemetery by a husband and wife team of anthropologists in July 2002 showed it was from around 2250 BC.

"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," said Jonathan Haas of The Field Museum in Chicago.

"We have this window back to the beginnings of civilization ... to the role of religion and the emergence of a complex society, the role of religion in the development of social hierarchy, government, power, and leadership," he said.

The 3-inch-tall depiction of the "Staff God" shows a fierce feline face with fangs, clawed feet, a snake for one hand and a staff -- a sign of leadership -- held in the other. Unlike undecorated gourds found elsewhere, it was likely inscribed with a hot implement and placed in a grave due to its ceremonial value.

The gourd could also have served soup, though such details await a residue analysis of the fragment.

Versions of the Staff God appeared in Andean iconography in succeeding centuries throughout Latin America, with the deity later depicted in gold, clay, textiles, and stone. The Staff God was later called the creator god, or Dira Cocha, by the Inca up through contact with Europeans in the 15th Century.

"This god on the gourd is telling us about the history of religion in South America," said Haas' wife, anthropologist Winifred Creamer of Northern Illinois University.

The gourd fragment was discovered in a large burial ground in the Pativilca River Valley of a region called Norte Chico, about 120 miles north of Lima.

Also found in the area were 75-foot-high (25-meter) mounds with staircases and ceremonial hearths with plazas below, as well as housing for various strata of society.

Some 26 communities have been found that likely contained thousands of residents each, reflecting a much more complex civilization compared to earlier hunting and gathering bands that populated the Peruvian highlands or small fishing villages along the coast.

Haas said the society was a "seedling" for the explosive growth of Andean civilization along Latin America's West Coast and Andean highlands. Writing and pottery were unknown to the society, but they had a rich diet from gardens and the sea.