New & Now: Ancient Astronomy

by Charles E. Reineke

For more than 30 years, Robert Benfer, now an emeritus professor of anthropology at MU, has patiently pieced together clues to the nature of early civilization in the Americas, work that has put him at the forefront of New World archaeology.

Some of Benfer's most celebrated finds have come in Peru, where he has worked since the 1970s. One of these discoveries was the 1981 unearthing of 7,700-year-old human burials that showed the ancient village of Paloma was the earliest yet documented in the Americas. Another investigation was instrumental in identifying a centuries-old skull as that of the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro.

This summer Benfer announced what may be his most important Peruvian discovery to date -- the unearthing of a 4,000-year-old temple and an assortment of astronomically oriented mud plaster sculptures. The positioning of these artifacts, Benfer determined, allowed ancient astronomers to track the movement of constellations and thus to predict the beginning and the end of flooding cycles that bracket the area's growing seasons.

The "celestial calendar" pre-dates any similar finds by almost 1,000 years. "It's also significant," Benfer says, "because it suggests people organized their lives around Andean constellations and the sun and provides evidence of the beginning of flood-plain agriculture."

Benfer, his Peruvian colleagues and students have been working at the 20-acre Buena Vista site located on Peru's coastal plain for four years. They uncovered the temple structure in 2004, dubbing it "The Temple of the Fox" after crews excavated a mural of a fox incised inside a painted llama near its entrance.

According to Andean myth, Benfer says, the fox taught farmers how to cultivate and irrigate plants and is reincarnated by drops of water. Even today, Peruvians associate the constellation of the fox with water, and farmers use the call of the fox to predict rainfall.

In a paper delivered at this year's annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Benfer described the manner in which alignments at the Buena Vista site are consistent with the use of the heavens in guiding agricultural activities. He detailed, for example, how lines at points on the temple entrance, in an offering chamber, on sculptures and on surrounding ridges each align with the rising and setting sun on days of astronomical import, such as the equinoxes and solstices.

In addition to its astronomical riches, the site has also yielded a number of other interesting finds, including a sculpture in the round depicting a musician playing a shell instrument. Until now, no other three-dimensional work of similar antiquity has been discovered in the New World.

"We were in no way prepared for finding this kind of stuff," Benfer recently told National Geographic, one of the backers of the dig. "It was absolutely unexpected." Look for reports of more finds in an upcoming edition of Geographic, he says.