By Kavita Kumar and Emily Dulcan
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
He helped match a skull with the remaining bones of Spanish explorer
Francisco Pizarro. And he led the team that excavated the oldest known village
in the Americas.
Now retired University of Missouri at Columbia anthropology Professor
Robert Benfer, working with a team of archaeologists, has another exciting
find to add to his impressive resume: uncovering an ancient temple that he says
contains the oldest sculptures and astronomically oriented structures found in
the New World.
Benfer and his team uncovered the 33-foot stepped pyramid temple, the
Temple of the Fox, in a 20-acre excavation site at Buena Vista, Peru. He says
the temple dates to 2220 B.C. – which makes it 1,000 years older than anything
of its kind previously found, he said.
The alignment of the temple with the sun and constellations on the
equinox and summer and winter solstice suggests that the early Andeans used
astronomical signs and constellations to guide their agricultural activities.
“It’s a big find – finding something new and without precedent,” said
Benfer. “It’s like mathematicians finding a new interesting question.”
Benfer, 67, presented his team’s findings Monday night at Mizzou as
the last in a series of lectures sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of
America. And he is planning to fly today to Puerto Rico where he will present his
findings to the Society for American Archaeology.
Scott de Brestian, president of the central Missouri chapter of the
Archeological Institute of America, said Benfer’s discovery of the
precisely constructed temple means sophisticated human calendars existed
earlier than was previously believed.
“This really changes our view of how old some of these cultural
traditions are,” de Brestian said.
Benfer’s work “pushes back Andean attention to astronomy in early
civilization to more than 4,000 years ago,” said Michael Moseley, a University of
Florida anthropologist who has worked in Peru for more than 30 years. “This is
Moseley added that Benfer’s discovery pushes the envelope in
challenging the rest of his field to pay more attention to astronomy in their work.
Benfer makes a point of saying that he didn’t find the site by himself.
Americans taking credit for archaeological discoveries in Peru have
led to controversies in the past.
Benfer worked with a team of Peruvian archaeologists, including
Bernardino Ojeda, and students from Peruvian universities and from the
University of Missouri.
The astronomical alignments that Benfer and his team found mark
important dates for farming. That suggests that the early civilizations in Peru
relied more heavily on agriculture than some have believed.
Benfer knows that other scientists might greet his findings with
skepticism – and they should. But he thinks he has a persuasive case because he found
multiple alignments “and those aren’t going to happen by chance,” he said
The physical orientation of the temple’s offering chamber is slightly
different from the rest of the temple, so that it is directly aligned with the
rising sun on Dec. 21, the date of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer solstice.
That’s when floodwater rose from the nearby Chillon River and crops should have been
planted. Looking to the west, the chamber directly aligns with a natural
platform over which the sun sets on June 21, marking the beginning of
At the same point in the west, people living 4,000 years ago would have
observed the rising of the star constellation the Fox on March 21, when
The temple’s relationship to the sun has remained almost exactly the
same with the passing of the millenniums, while the constellations have
shifted, and the temple’s relationship to the Fox constellation is no longer the same,
The Temple of the Fox is named for the etching of a fox found at the
temple’s entrance. In Andean cultures, the fox is associated with water.
One of two sculptures at the temple is a face flanked by two animals.
Benfer characterizes the face as “disconsolate.” It is oriented exactly the
same as the offering chamber. Benfer speculates that the face could be one of
the earliest characterizations of Pacha Mama, the Andean god or goddess who
believers thought created the Earth.
It almost never rains at Buena Vista, Benfer said, so the remains
found in the excavation site are in fairly good shape. They found twigs and pieces
of cotton that they radio carbon-dated and found to be 4,000 years old, he said.
Benfer began teaching at the University of Missouri in 1969. He
retired in 2003 but continues to work with graduate students.
He has been working in Peru since the 1970s, traveling there nearly
every year – sometimes more than once. He has been working at the Buena Vista
site for four years and discovered the Temple of the Fox in June 2004.
He hopes to return to return to Peru this summer to continue
excavating the site.