A painted gourd fragment recovered from Peru has added an interesting piece to the archaeological puzzle of where and how religion evolved in pre-Columbian Andean society. Estimated to be more than 4,000 years old, the artifact may be the earliest representation of one of the principal gods in primitive South American religion.

The people who would have made this object are thought to have lived between 2600 B.C. and 2000 B.C., more than 3,000 years before the Inca and well before ceramic pottery was invented in the Andes. The gourd fragment was found in the Pativilca River Valley about 120 miles north of Lima; its decoration makes it noteworthy. In the current issue of Archaeology, Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago describes the relic and reports that it appears to be engraved and painted with the likeness of the Staff God, an important deity in later Andean cultures. It depicts a fanged creature holding a staff in its right hand and whose left hand appears to be a snakes head. (The image above shows the gourd fragment (top) and an artist's representation of the drawing depicted on it (bottom).) According to the article, the remains of the gourd were radiocarbon dated to 2250 B.C., plus or minus 48 years. The find thus hints that Andean religion may have originated nearly 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, the authors claim.

Found in a cemetery, the gourd comes from a site similar to at least 26 other locales in the Pativilca River Valley and surrounding Norte Chico region, Haas says. Yet to be published radiocarbon dates for textiles, reeds and other gourds from the area all have been assigned dates between 2200 and 2700 B.C. "Its a whole complex that is the base of Andean civilization," he comments. "It starts here in Norte Chico and fluoresces through the rest of civilization."

Meanwhile other researchers, including John Rick of Stanford University, would like a more detailed examination of the figure on the gourd before drawing any conclusions about its significance. "Was this the point from which all things radiated?" Rick questions. "If it really is a Staff God, that will make things interesting." For decades archaeologists have suspected that religion and ceremonialism stretched back to the pre-Ceramic period. Some believe, as Haas does, that religion and culture evolved in one region and spread to other areas over time. Others think there was simultaneous, parallel cultural evolution in disparate regions. "There are a lot of dimensions to what the religion was like and when," Rick says. "Does that mean religions were similar, based [solely] on a gourd fragment? You couldnt go there."