February 13, 2013

5000 years old temple found near Lima, Peru

Archaeologists have uncovered one of the oldest temples of America in El Paraíso, a rich archaeological site located 40 km northwest of Lima. 

The pyramidal structure is estimated to be c. 5000 years old (although awaiting radiocarbon dating), much much older than the Incas and rather contemporary of the pyramids of Egypt, for example. It confirms that the area of Lima was a ceremonial center for the ancient peoples of Peru.

The Temple of Fire, as it was nicknamed by the discoverers, contains a hearth at its center, which they suspect was a key part of their rituals. It is built of stone covered in fine yellow clay, which shows some indications of having been painted in red colors.

The ritual site is located close both to the coast and to the valley, allowing for it to interact with both the coastal fishing economy and the beginnings of agriculture in the interior, they say. The prehistorical period of this building is known as the Pre-Ceramic Age (c. 3600-1800 BCE). 

Sources: BBC, El Universo[es] (via Pileta).

Update: see the interesting comments below by Raimo Kangasniemi, who argues that several sites (Áspero, La Galgada, Caral, all them in Peru) are roughly contemporary of this one, indicating a growing dedication of resources to ritual/religious buildings already in the Pre-Ceramic Period V, also elsewhere.


  1. The date, if true, would be very notable. This would pre-date the Olmec civilization of Central America (ca. 1200 BCE) and Poverty Point, Louisiana (ca. 1600 BCE). It would be contemporaneous with the earliest large scale mounds and earth platforms in the Americas in Monroe, Louisiana ca. 3700 BCE to 2700 BCE.

    While people arrived in the Americas many millenia earlier, a 5000 years BP date would make this site the oldest example of monumental architecture in South America by many centuries. It would also, as you note, precede pottery in South America by about 1200 years.

    The date still within the range of plausibility, as Preceramic Period V (4200 BCE to 2500 BCE) is the point at which the region experiences a Neolithic revolution in which farming of domesticated crops has replaced cultivation of pre-domesticated species of plants and the global archaelogical record shows us that monumental architecture and the Neolithic revolution in any given place usually coincide fairly closely. But, monumental architecture has previously been seen only in sites during or after the Preceramic Period VI (2500 BCE to 1800 BCE) in the region, which a 5000 year old date would precede by about 500 years.

    If I were a betting man, I would bet that when the radiocarbon dates come in that they will be a relatively unexceptional 4200-4500 years BP, rather than chronology modifying 5000 years BP.

    1. Not long ago Göbekli Tepe would not have been imagined so early in the Neolithic, some say that even still withing a Mesolithic context. We will have to wait for the radiocarbon dates to be produced but, as of now, I see no particular reason to question the estimates of the archaeologists. We'll have to wait to be certain however.

      Thanks for the link in any case, it is very useful to better contextualize the finding.

  2. I think this is a pretty unexceptional result. The Caral aka Norte Chico civilization seems to have risen as early as 5000 years ago and to find that it was part of a larger development in the coastal regions of Peru would not be unexpected as the same reasons that led to its emergence should have operated in the Lima region too and they are also separated by mere 200 kilometers or so, which is not so much as there are hints of longer emerging trade routes at this time.

    What I do object against a bit is calling this new find a temple; its relatively small size means that it might be better to call it a shrine.

    1. "Unexceptional"? So far it seems the oldest one of this kind, although what Andrew finds suspicious of hype, you find unremarkable. Well... subjectivities.

      "... its relatively small size"...

      Precisely for being one of the first ones, it seems logical that it'd be relatively small, right? Anyhow look at the people standing by it: it's not so small. A shrine or chapel is some sort of temple but it looks much bigger than any chapel or hermitage I have ever seen at least in Christian contexts. True that if you compare with the "megalomaniac" bouts at Gölbeki Tepe or the Great Pyramids or even Teotihuacan, all early examples of their own cultural contexts, it may seem as modest - is maybe that what you have in mind?

  3. Not really. The Peruvian tradition of building religious buildings emerged on other sites of this age as an apparently large-scale communal activity from the beginning, the buildings being of relatively big size from the beginning as the builders could use the labour of up to a few thousand people.

    It seems that families or other small groups of people had a quota to fill and baskets were used to count this, which is the reason why baskets with their contents were often thrown in the rubble core of monuments being build without people bothering to just empty and re-use them.

    From the beginning there was the division of the large-scale platform and plaza that were probably accessible to the people who had actually build them and then the inner sanctum that was probably accessible only to the priests. So there were two forces uniting the people and keeping up the unity: The building activity and the communal ceremonies.

    So, one would have expected a shrine of this type to be on the top of a sizable platform, faced with a plaza and in the pictures it appears to be on the ground level.

    Its on a more private scale and based on what I have read about it, seems to lack the communal aspect so far that is typical of Peruvian (and frankly, pretty typical of any religious tradition anywhere) religious tradition; of giving people partial access, letting them share - from distance in some cases - some of the religious ceremonies but hiding the most holiest from the eyes of the most.

    In here, either the communal aspect has not been yet found or it took an another kind of form - perhaps people were given greater access to the inner sanctum. But building these religious sites was - like it probably was in Göbekli Tepe and probably in places like ancient Uruk that saw regularly re-building of religious sites without any apparent reason - part of the religious activity itself and helped to create and keep communities together.

    (It could explain why some early ones are so big - small religious sites would have united only a small number of people through the act of creating them and keeping them going on.)

    So, that's why I think it looks more like a shrine than a temple to me. It might have been either the creation of a relatively small number of people or a creation of people who diverged from the emerging mainstream of Peruvian religious tradition. Or its just a small surviving part of a much bigger early complex.

    1. Alright, objection accepted. I am not knowledgeable enough on the matter to dispute your assertions, so I will have take your word for it.

      But not without a question: those "other sites of this age" are really as old as 5000 years ago? I ask out of ignorance but a bit surprised considering the objections in the opposite sense by Andrew above.

    2. Following the chronology of this link, which Andrew mentioned before, monumental architecture only arises some centuries later, in the Preceramic Period VI (2500-1800 BCE). As Andrew suggested, if the estimated date is later found to be too old by just five centuries or a bit more, then the temple would be not too remarkable, but, if the estimate stands, then it seems older than what was known in that kind of architecture and that makes it very relevant.

  4. The division of Peruvian history of this era represents largely the state of knowledge in 1960-70s, with some later corrections. The newer finds have not really been incorporated into them yet.

    Here's a link to an old (from 2002) article, itself outdated by the later finds, but explaining some of the background: http://www.jqjacobs.net/andes/coast.html

    From it:

    "In coastal Peru monument building is first evidenced around 3100 B.C. (Kornbacher 1999:294). Early Andean ceremonial complexes in the third millennium B.C. provide the foundation for later developments, but there is little consensus regarding possible origins. With no local precedent there is a relatively sudden appearance of massive monuments, at a time corresponding to sea level stabilization around 3000 B.C. (Moseley 1985:35)."

    As one example is the large site of Aspero, now considered to be part of the same cultural sphere as Caral:

    "The Aspero site yielded the earliest date of all Early horizon structures (Moseley and Willey 1973:465). Dating is available for the two largest platform mounds. The Huaca de los Idolos radiocarbon measurements span from 4900 ± 160 B.P. to 3970 ± 145 B.P."

    Then there are sites like La Galgada, with relatively modest beginnings (but religious building programs already being more time consuming than those spend on building habitation for the inhabitants of the village) at 3000-2900 BCE and then soon after blossoming into massive building programs, and Caral who might be as old as Aspero and was certainly inhabited by 2700 BCE with massive monumental building programs.

    1. Thanks for the citation, I appreciate your insight.

      It is always good to have more up to date information. Assuming that the citations to Kornbacher and Moseley are correct (and I have no reason to doubt them), then this isn't so exceptional after all and confirms prior findings (which is nice to see every once in a while in field research).

      The older dates also remain relevant in evaluating the extent to which this development was independent of, or derived from, similar developments further to the North. The construction style you suggest does sound similar to recent Poverty Point reconstructions.

    2. I see. All that is very interesting and really puts in perspective the significance of this site. Thanks, Raimo.


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