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Religion in the Americas began 2250 BC

Ancient icon found in Peru is 1,000 years older than any other religious artifact in the region.

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Archaeologists combing rubble in an arid river valley that spills out onto the central coast of Peru have uncovered a 4,000-year-old gourd fragment that may represent the oldest religious object ever found in the Western Hemisphere.

It bears an etched or burned image of what has come to be known as the "staff god" - a deity whose squat, half-human, half-animal visage adorns urns and temple walls from Andean cultures spanning thousands of years.

The find "pushes back the emergence of the oldest known Andean religion by more than 1,000 years," says Winifred Creamer, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University and a member of the team that discovered the object.

The region's myths assign the staff god the role of creator. Yet the find also may help tell a larger story, archaeologists say - one that points to the Norte Chico region as the cradle of Andean civilizations that culminated in the Inca empire. At their height in the early 1500s, Incas ruled the largest empire on Earth.

By contrast, during the third millennium BC "you have small hunter-gatherer bands and fishing villages" throughout today's Peru, says Jonathan Haas, curator of North American anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and a member of the research team. "Then you find this giant monster in Norte Chico - cities with large circular plazas, monumental architecture, and now a divinity figure. That's extraordinary."

In the figure he calls "our little man," Dr. Haas says "you're seeing mythology, archaeology, and iconography coming together to open a window on the emergence of religion, which goes hand in hand with the emergence of centralized societies."

The researchers discovered the fragment last July when they were sorting through a looted burial site in the Pativilca River Valley. If the fragment had been clay, the condition of the site would have made it difficult to associate the fragment with a particular time. But the teams' fragment came from a plant, in this case a softball-sized gourd, so it provided its own time reference for radiocarbon dating. The fragment, one of two decorated gourd fragments the team found, dated to 2,250 BC The team, which includes Alvaro Ruiz, codirector of the Norte Chico Archaeology Project, reported its find in a brief notice in the current issue of Archaeology magazine, which hit the streets this week.

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