COLUMBIA — In 2005, Robert Benfer made “the find of a lifetime.”
An MU professor emeritus of archaeology, Benfer was on an expedition 30 miles from Lima, Peru, six years ago when his team discovered two mud-plaster statues.
Carbon dating determined that the statues dated to about 2,000 B.C., making them the oldest in the New World, Benfer said. He plans to return to the area in August to map massive animal effigies, which he says are in danger of being destroyed.
Revelations of the 2005 findings appear in the February-March 2011 edition of the Journal of Cosmology. Benfer co-authored the paper "Ancient South American Cosmology: Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox," which explains the discovery's significance.
He wrote the paper with Louanna Furbee, MU professor emerita of anthropology, and Hugo Ludeña, archaeology faculty member at Universidad Nacional Federico Villarreal in Lima.
Benfer said his expedition team included both a group of MU field school students and Peruvian excavators in charge of individual units of excavation. The MU students assisted the excavators and learned the methods and techniques of archaeology.
The group, excavating a coastal site near Lima, hoped to uncover plant and animal remains that could shed light on the importance of crops to ancient Andean people, Benfer said.
On a sunny day in July 2005 — winter in Peru — Benfer was making a circle among all of the excavation's units when one, managed by Neil Duncan, then an MU graduate student, and Bernardino Ojeda, a Peruvian archaeologist, surprisingly uncovered the head of a statue.
Benfer said they did not immediately realize how old the statue was.
“We assumed it must just be a later time-period sculpture that had rolled in the site,” he said.
They found the statue sitting in front of a temple where the age already had been determined. Members of the team had a hypothesis, but not until the statue was fully uncovered several days later did they grasp its importance.
After Benfer's team completely excavated the first statue, it moved to a nearby area of the same site. Almost immediately, they found a second sculpture, he said.
According to his published paper, the second statue is a painted "menacing disk" adjacent to two mythical foxes.
The foxes, likely one male and one female, look away from the disk with "lunar-fox eyes, which look to the June solstice sunset," according to the paper.
The fox represents a key constellation in the Andean zodiac, Benfer said. According to a myth still widely told in the Andes and the Amazon, the fox constellation helps direct the agricultural activities of the South American people.
The statue particularly interested Benfer because it reveals just how old the myth is.
“No one ever imagined that a myth could persist that long without a written language to capture it,” he said.
Both statues were found in a rocky area on the side of a coastal river valley. Benfer described the excavation site as an “incredible contrast.”
The valley floor is lush, green and fertile enough for three crop cycles per year, though not a blade of grass can be seen on either side.
Benfer said Peru's National Institute of Culture was so fascinated with the artifacts that it considered taking the statues from their original site and preserving them in a museum.
"They were as excited as anybody would be because these were the oldest," he said. "No one had found a sculpture of that antiquity."
Because of a grant from National Geographic, Benfer said he was able to install a steel-frame building to protect the statues at the original site.
To determine the age of the artifacts, the team used carbon dating on decayed carbon isotopes found in grass from the mud plaster, Duncan said. By measuring the isotopes' degree of decay, the team was able to estimate when the grass died and determine the artifacts' age.
"This find is important because Peru is one of the few places in the world where civilization developed without contact from other civilizations," said Zach Zorich, senior editor of Archaeology magazine. "Finds like this give archaeologists insight into the origins of civilization."
The animal effigies that Benfer plans to map in August are similar to ones found in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere in the north central United States. He said he found three pairs of mounds, each more than 200 yards in length and formed in the shapes of animals.
He noticed the mounds last time he was in Peru and used Google Earth to further research them.
He said the mounds are in danger because Peruvians are unfamiliar with them, and farmers have already destroyed some. Benfer said he hopes reports of the research will help save these potentially historic landmasses.
Despite his accomplishments, which also include discovering the remains of Peru’s conqueror, Francisco Pizarro, in the 1980s, Benfer remains humble.
“I’m a very lucky person. I’ve been making one find after another lately,” he said. “My Peruvian friends tell me that I make my own luck, but I’m not superstitious. I just think it’s dumb luck.”