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Professor shares Andean discovery

His team unearthed a 4,000-year-old temple.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:51 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Temple of the Fox lay covered by dirt and sand for 4,000 years in the barren hills of Buena Vista, Peru, before it was unearthed in June 2004 by Robert Benfer, professor emeritus of anthropology at MU.

In the 33-foot high Andean temple, Benfer’s team found the earliest known astronomical alignment and sculptures in the New World.

“We did not expect to find architecture like this,” he said. “No one did.”

Benfer shared his team’s findings and its historical significance to about two dozen people on Monday evening at MU.

For Benfer, the most significant finds from the temple were the numerous astronomical alignments, suggesting that the Andeans used constellations to guide their lives.

He said ancient Andean forecasters used the astronomical alignments to predict weather such as droughts and floods.

However, these astronomical alignments no longer point to significant constellations and will not do so again for approximately another 22,000 years, Benfer said.

He said these minor positioning differences prove that the astronomical alignments are not simply coincidental.

“That was the only time you would have alignment with the constellations and the solstice,” Benfer said, “The only time it would be of any use.”

He added other excavated temples in the region contained the exact same angle alignments, which further supports his theory.

[photo]

Robert Benfer and his team carefully work to remove bags of rock to unearth an ancient Andean personified disk, found in the Temple of the Fox in June 2004 in Buena Vista, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Project Buena Vista)

Aside from astronomic alignments, Benfer said his team also found ancient artwork on the 16-acre site, including a mural of a fox carved inside a painted llama.

He said ancient Andean people held the fox with the utmost respect because they believed foxes walked in areas suitable for building canals.

“They are not wildly attractive, but they will be very interesting because they are so old,” Benfer said of the mural findings.

Benfer said the temple was well-preserved because rainfall on the western side of Peru occurs only about once a century.

He said the temple was almost disrupted by looters, who came within inches of uncovering and likely ruining some of the structures. Because ancient Andeans built offering chambers on top of each other, the original chambers remained hidden from looters and the elements.

In the chamber were offerings of ancient cotton and twigs. Benfer used radiocarbon dating technology on two of the twigs and dated both of them to be from 2200 B.C., a rare match.

“That doesn’t ever happen in archaeology,” Benfer said.

After retiring from MU in 2003, Benfer headed to Peru with funding from the MU Research Board, field schools in North and South America and National Geographic. He said he plans to finish his research this summer. He will present his findings at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Puerto Rico next week.

The site is currently covered with protective coverings shielding it from looters looking for gold or other treasure, Benfer said. However, gold isn’t likely to be found since ancient Andeans had yet to use gold in 2200 B.C., he said.

Benfer said he believes the anthropology community won’t be the only group benefited by excavation. “There has been more than some thought of making a tourist route to go see it,” Benfer said. “The treasure is there all right, and if we can maintain the site it can really help the economy of the region.”


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