Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Earliest Americans—Buena Vista

Sitting on 20 acres about 25 miles inland in the Chillon River Valley and an hour’s drive north of Lima, lies the ancient archaeological site of Buena Vista. Looking like nothing more than a hill of dirt and jagged gray rocks when first seen, archaeologists believed they were looking at the remains of an ancient Peruvian village that turned out to be a village so sophisticated that it astounded the archaeologists who recently excavated part of the site. They found that the village, they called Buena Vista, contained artifacts that allowed its residents to track the seasons and predict the weather 4,000 years ago.
University of Missouri’s archaeologist Robert Benfer’s team began excavating at Buena Vista in 2002, and two years later they uncovered the site's most notable feature, a ceremonial temple complex about 55 feet long. At the heart of the temple was an offering chamber about six feet deep and six feet wide. It was brimming with layers of partially burned grass; pieces of squash, guava and another native fruit called lucuma; guinea pig; a few mussel shells; and scraps of cotton fabric—all capped by river rocks. Carbon-dated burned twigs from the pit suggest the temple was completed more than 4,200 years ago.
    The hill before excavation (left) exposed a three story, 33-foot-tall pyramid, with a temple structure on top, called today the Temple of the Fox because of murals within it, that date to at least 2200 B.C. Many of the sculptures found lined up with platform structures and carved faces on the ridge of a mountain on the other side of the valley from the building and during both winter and summer solstices (shortest and longest days of the year), they line up perfectly with the setting sun, a very important aid in planting and harvesting in antiquity.
The site was first excavated by Frederic Engel in 1987 from which he obtained radiocarbon dates of artifacts that pertained to the Early Preceramic Period (9700+/-200 uncalibrated radiocarbon years before the present (about 7700 B.C.) In June 2004, archaeologist Robert Benfer and his team discovered Buena Vista’s most significant feature—the Temple of the Fox, which dated to about 2200 B.C. These ancient peoples had no writing system, and thus their name was not preserved for our knowledge; they are considered a late pre-ceramic culture and are believed to have followed the Kotosh religious tradition. Many archaeologists refer to them as the Andeans.
    The temple complex measures 33 feet in height, about a three story building. It is most notable for the astronomical observatory at its top, which is the oldest of its kind in the Americas and predates records of similar artistic and scientific achievements of the region by 800 years.
    A few weeks before the end of the excavation season, the archaeologists cleared away rocks from an entrance to the temple and found themselves staring at a mural. It was staring back. A catlike eye was the first thing they saw, and when they exposed the rest of the mural they found that the eye belonged to a fox nestled inside the womb of a llama. Another sculpture, a frowning disk, sits near the door to the temple and is made of mud plaster and grass and covered with a fine surface of clay.
A 4000-year-old, 20-foot-long mud sculpture flanked by two foxes referred to as “The Menacing Disk”
    Within days, Duncan spied a prominent rock on a ridge to the east. It lined up with the center of the offering chamber, midway between its front and back openings. The rock appeared to have been shaped into the profile of a face and placed on the ridge. It occurred to Benfer that the temple may have been built to track the movements of the sun and stars.
    He and his colleagues consulted astronomer Larry Adkins of Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. Adkins calculated that 4,200 years ago, on the summer solstice, the sun would have risen over the rock when viewed from the temple. And in the hours before dawn on the summer solstice, a starry fox constellation would have risen between two other large rocks that were placed on the same ridge.
    It was obvious that these large rocks placed on the ridge to the east of the observatory entrance served as a calendar. The most prominent rock marked the summer solstice, and from the perspective of the temple, the sun would rise directly over the rock. In the hours just before dawn on the summer solstice, a particular constellation rose between two other large rocks on the same ridge—the constellation was the fox.
Vulpecula (Latin for "Little Fox"), usually called just "Fox," is a faint constellation in the northern sky, located in the middle of the Summer Triangle of Deneb, Vega and Altair
    The temple’s reverence to the fox, apparent in both the entrance mural and its astrological orientation, may provide clues to the purpose of the temple. Among many indigenous peoples of South America, the fox is a symbol of water and cultivation. Benfer hypothesizes that the ancient inhabitants of Buena Vista used the Temple of the Fox to appeal to their gods for good harvests on the summer solstice, which would have been planting time for the civilization. This hypothesis is further supported by the remains of plants and vegetables inside the temple’s offering chamber.
The Buena Vista site as a whole includes ruins from 10,000 years ago to less than 3,000 years ago. Besides the temple, the site encompasses a ceremonial center, stepped pyramids, and residences for the elites and for commoners. These buildings are from varying time periods, many of which were later than the heyday of the temple. Most of these structures have also been looted, though the Temple of the Fox, because it was buried beneath several layers of earth, narrowly escaped such looting.
    The remaining 18 acres of the site have a variety of buildings, most of them from later cultures, that include a ceremonial center, stepped pyramids and what apparently was a residence center for elites. Most of those have been looted. Oval houses that probably served as homes for families of commoners sit across a ravine from the main pyramid.
    There were probably other buildings farther down the slopes, Benfer said, "but the Chillon River removes everything from time to time."
    Evidence of pottery indicates that the site was inhabited for centuries, but it is not yet clear whether or how it was eventually abandoned.
The observatory is further distinguished by its sophisticated carvings, and a three-dimensional life-size sculpture of a musician (left), unique for a period known for two-dimensional reliefs in that region. The sculpture was uncovered by Benfer's team, a life-sized human figure sitting with its legs sculpted in high relief and hanging over the edge of one of a series of short platforms that lead down to what appears to be another temple.
    "It's really quite a shock to everyone to see sculptures of that sophistication coming out of a building of that time period," said archeologist Richard L. Burger of Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the discovery. The find adds strong evidence to support the recent idea that a sophisticated civilization developed in South America in the pre-ceramic era, before the development of fired pottery sometime after 1500 BC.
    Benfer's discovery "pushes the envelope of civilization farther south and inland from the coast, and adds the important dimension of astronomy to these ancient folks' way of life," said archeologist Michael Moseley of the University of Florida, a noted Peru expert.
    One might think they have discovered a branch of a people who came to this land fully aware of sculpture, astronomy, constructing buildings, etc., like the Nephites.

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