Long before the Earthworks movement of the 1960s and 70s in the U.S., cultures worldwide have been creating site-specific monuments in the landscape. A new find in Peru by University of Missouri anthropology professor emeritus Robert Benfer marks a rare discovery of very early animal mounds in South America. Prior to Benfer’s find, the only other animal mounds known from South America were several in the Andes.
Benfer found the massive earthen creatures splayed out in the landscape along the coastal plains of the country. The mounds, which range from 16.5 feet to 1,312 feet long, were found in an area already chockablock with cultural gems such as the Nazca lines and the ruined city of Chan Chan.
The historic treasures pre-date ceramics and are thought to have been constructed with the use of woven baskets to carry the rock and soil. The orca-shaped mound, pictured above, is approximately 5,000 years old. (Orcas hunted off the Peruvian coast just steps away from the mound, until recently when industrial fishing eliminated their prey.)
“Some of them are more than 4,000 years old,” Benfer said. “The oldest Peruvian mounds were being built at the same time as the pyramids in Egypt.”
Astronomical Orientations, Zodiac Associations?
Unlike the Earthworks of 20th-century America, which were in protest to the commercialization of art in the 1960s, the Peruvian earthworks most-likely served a deeper function. Benfer suggested the structures were possibly created as earthen manifestations of constellations. The mounds not only seem to represent heavenly bodies, they align with them. Benfer has found astronomical orientations at every giant mound.
The terrestrial condor’s eye, shown here, lines up with the Milky Way when viewed from a nearby temple, while a monstrous caiman/puma mound, below, aligns with the summer solstice when viewed from the same temple.
“The finding of animal effigy mounds where there were none before changes our conception of early Peruvian prehistory,” Benfer said. “That they probably represent the Andean zodiac is also a new find. A controversial interpretation of some Nazca figures as representations of the zodiac is supported by these mounds.”
Although they appear to be plentiful, researchers overlooked the animal effigies since the first days of scientific archeology in Peru.
“I had always noted that a very large structure just north of Lima resembled a bird. But since there were supposedly no giant animal effigy mounds in South America, I thought it couldn’t be one,” Benfer said.
The results of Benfer’s work were published in the journal Antiquity.