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Archaeologists discover 4,000-year-old temple and theater in Peru

According to the findings of a team of archaeologists from the Ucupe Cultural Landscape Archaeological Project, the newly discovered structures were built about 3,500 years before the famous Inca citadel at Machu Picchu and long before the Incas and their predecessors.

Newly discovered archaeological site, including a sculpture of a mythical bird, at La Otra Banda, Cerro Las Animas, Peru. Photo source: Ucupe Cultural Landscape Archaeological Project.

“It was amazing. This discovery tells us about the early beginnings of religion in Peru,” said Dr. Muro Ynoñán, an archaeologist at the Field Museum.

“We still know very little about how and under what circumstances complex belief systems arose in the Andes. Now we have evidence of some of the earliest religious spaces that humans created in this part of the world.”

“We don’t know what these people called themselves or what other people called them.”

Dr. Ynoñán and his team discovered a new archaeological site in La Otra Banda, Peru in 2023.

They selected a plot of land approximately 10 by 10 metres (33 by 33 feet) and began slowly removing the sediment that had accumulated over millennia.

At a depth of only 1.8 m (6 ft) traces of ancient walls made of mud and clay were found.

“It was extremely surprising that these very old structures were located so close to the modern surface,” Dr Ynoñan said.

Digging deeper, archaeologists found evidence that a temple had once been located here.

“We believe a large temple was built into the mountainside and we found part of it,” Dr Ynoñan said.

“One of the most exciting things we discovered was a small theater with a backstage area and steps leading up to a platform that looked like a stage.”

“It could be used for ritual performances before a select audience.”

On either side of the theater steps, archaeologists found mud panels decorated with intricately carved patterns depicting a bird-like creature.

“It’s a very beautiful and at the same time intriguing design of a mythical creature – it looks like an anthropomorphic bird, but with some reptilian characteristics,” Dr Ynoñán said.

“This figure caught our attention because it gives important clues as to when the temple was built and how this structure relates to other ancient temples built by early groups in the Andes.”

“Other depictions of mythical creatures similar to the one our team found have been found in Peru. They date to what archaeologists call the Initial Period, about 4,000 years ago.”

“Despite the name, the Incipient Period people were not the first to inhabit the region: humans have inhabited Peru for 15,000 years.”

“Around 5000–3000 BCE, during a period known as the pre-ceramic period, the inhabitants of coastal Peru began to form societies and complex political systems.”

“Then began the Initial Period, which began around 2000 BC and lasted until 900 BC.”

“The initial period is important because this is when we begin to see the first evidence of institutionalized religion in Peru.”

“The bird in this temple resembles a figure known from the Chavín region, almost 500 years later. This new site may help reveal the origins of this religion.”