Last year, local farmers clearing land in the La Libertad region of northwestern Peru came across something unexpected: the ruins of a shrine bearing a large mural painted in shades of ocher, yellow, gray and white.
Researchers have now identified the image as a 3,200-year-old painting of a knife-wielding spider god. As Sam Jones reports for the Guardian, the farmers, who were using heavy machinery to extend their avocado and sugarcane plantations, accidentally destroyed about 60 percent of the shrine complex.
Régulo Franco Jordán, archaeological director of the Augusto N. Wiese Foundation, says the adobe shrine was probably built by members of the Cupisnique culture; its location near a river suggests that it may have honored water deities.
“What we have here is a shrine that would have been a ceremonial center thousands of years ago,” he tells Hugo Rodriguez of Peruvian newspaper La República, per the Guardian. “The spider on the shrine is associated with water and was an incredibly important animal in pre-Hispanic cultures, which lived according to a ceremonial calendar. It’s likely that there was a special, sacred water ceremony held between January and March when the rains came down from the higher areas.”
When Jordán heard about the discovery, he immediately went to investigate.
“When I arrived,” he tells the state-run Andina News Agency, “I was so surprised to see an impressive facade, with geometric figures.”
Valioso hallazgo arqueológico. Descubren pintura mural de más de 3,200 años en La Libertad. https://t.co/iCesdo66HH— Agencia Andina (@Agencia_Andina) March 22, 2021
Hallazgo se produjo luego que unas personas destruyeran una huaca para extender campos de cultivo en Virú. pic.twitter.com/CKeuET6l7v
Jordán initially thought the temple might have belonged to the Mochica culture, which flourished in the area between the first and eighth centuries A.D. But he quickly realized it was actually from the earlier Cupisnique culture.
Per Museo Larco, a Lima-based museum of pre-Hispanic art, the Cupisnique culture began around 1250 B.C. and lasted until about 1 A.D. During this time, people built the area’s first known temples and created pottery in the shapes of animals, fruits, human heads and houses.
Some Cupisnique artifacts feature images of spiders, which were associated with rain, agricultural fertility, and sacrifice and regeneration, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Feren Castillo, an archaeologist at the National University of Trujillo who was involved in research on the shrine complex, tells Andina that three different stages of construction probably took place at the site. The earliest ruins feature conical adobes, while the second oldest include the wall with the mural. The researchers have not yet investigated a possible third part of the complex.
Jordán has named the temple Tomabalito, or “little Tomabal”—a reference to Castillo de Tomabel, an ancient stepped structure located nearby.
The researchers have registered the site with local authorities. Per Artnet News’ Sarah Cascone, the government is planning emergency work to preserve the site and has filed a complaint about the farmers who damaged the temple. The archaeologists say they plan to conduct further research at the site after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.