News Release

Scientists find America’s oldest image of a deity

Icon pushes back origin of religion in America 1,000 years

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Field Museum

A 4,000-year-old gourd fragment bears an archaic image of the Staff God, the principal deity in South America during thousands of years. It was found at a looted cemetery along the coast of Peru, in what appears to have been the ancestral home of Andean civilization that culminated 3,500 years later in the Inca.
Photo by Jonathan Hass, Courtesy of The Field Museum

CHICAGO—Archaeologists have found a 4,000-year-old gourd fragment that bears an archaic image of the Staff God – the principal deity in South America during thousands of years.

“Like the cross, the Staff God is a clearly recognizable religious icon,” says Jonathan Haas, MacArthur curator of North American anthropology at The Field Museum. “This appears to be the oldest identifiable religious icon found in the Americas. It indicates that organized religion began in the Andes more than 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.”

Members of the Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico found the gourd fragment along the coast of Peru, 120 miles north of Lima, while collecting surface artifacts at a looted cemetery. The fragment, which was once part of a gourd bowl about the size of softball, has been radiocarbon dated to 2250 B.C.

A drawing of the Staff God depicted on the 4,000-year-old gourd fragment found in Peru. The Staff God is characterized by a frontal view, fanged teeth, splayed feet and the presence of a staff in one hand. All these features are present in this archaic image.
Drawing by Jill Seagard, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Archaeology will publish a description of the new discovery in its May-June issue, which hits the newsstands Tuesday, April 15. The report is authored by Haas; Winifred Creamer, associate professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University; and Alvaro Ruiz, Co-Director of the Proyecto Arqueológico Norte Chico.

According to Ruiz, “the Staff God, also known as Dios de los Baculos, is an iconic motif with a long and broad history throughout several Andean cultures. This deity figure is commonly shown in a frontal view, with a fanged mouth and splayed and clawed feet. Snakes are often part of the figure’s headdress or integrated into its garments. Most commonly, the deity is depicted holding a staff in one or both hands, hence the name.”

The incised and painted image on the newly found gourd fragment, while simple and archaic in style, clearly has fangs and splayed feet. Its left arm appears to end in a snake’s head, and its right hand holds a staff. A similar incised and painted drawing on a second gourd fragment from a nearby cemetery represents the same or a similar figure.

The Staff God, the principal deity of the Andes, appears on many artifacts from many cultures for thousands of years, including this Wari-style urn from Pacheco, Nasca, Peru. It dates from 500-800 A.D.
Photo by P. Hollembeak, American Museum of Natural History

The figures were found in the Patavilca River Valley, one of four coastal valleys that make up the Norte Chico region of the Peruvian coast. This region was densely populated between 2600 B.C. and 2000 B.C. and appears to have been the ancestral home of Andean civilization that culminated 3500 years later in the Inca. “To date, 26 major centers have been recorded in the Norte Chico region, all with monumental architecture, large-scale ceremonial structures, and complex residential and administrative architecture,” Creamer says. “It is a truly unique concentration of settlements anywhere in the Americas.”

All the sites lack pottery, which was introduced on the Peruvian coast about 1900 B.C.

As part of a long-term project focused on the Norte Chico preceramic, the 2002 fieldwork was designed to extract radiocarbon dates, gain information on the construction of the various platform mounds, and make preliminary collections at two cemeteries east of the modern town of Barranca. Both gourd fragments were found at these cemeteries, which today stand as large stone outcrops covered with windblown sand.


NOTE: Digital images are available of the newly found icon, as well as other representations of the Staff God, for comparison.

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