Peru’s Mysterious Animal-Shaped Mounds

Peru, effigy mound
It’s always an odd experience to see a familiar name in the news. Dr. Robert Benfer was a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia when I was getting my master’s in archaeology. I was studying the early medieval Europe while he taught about prehistoric Peru, so our paths didn’t cross much, but I did go to some of his lectures. I especially remember his skewering of the controversial book “The Bell Curve” for its shoddy use of statistics.

Dr. Benfer has announced that he has discovered several effigy mounds in Peru — artificial hills in the shapes of birds, including a giant condor, a 5,000-year-old orca, a duck and a caiman/puma monster.

“The mounds will draw tourists, one day,” Benfer said in a university press release. “Some of them are more than 4,000 years old. Compare that to the effigy mounds of North America, which date to between 400 and 1200 A.D. The oldest Peruvian mounds were being built at the same time as the pyramids in Egypt.”

An interesting aspect of this discovery is that it shows how science works, and occasionally doesn’t work. Because it was thought there were no effigy mounds in Peru, nobody looked for them. Benfer himself admits to not seeing one that was right in front of him. Once he noticed several animal-like patterns on Google Earth, however, he rethought his assumptions. He set out to survey six valleys and found effigy mounds in all of them. Another old theory is discarded in the face of new evidence.

Some of the mounds are more than 1,000 feet long and are only clearly visible from above, much like Peru’s famous Nazca Lines. Dr. Benfer suggests they may represent the Andean zodiac. Indeed, many appear to have astronomical alignments. A giant condor’s eye, for example, lines up with the Milky Way when observed from a nearby temple.

Dr. Benfer’s discovery has been published in the journal Antiquity and he is heading back to Peru this summer to look for more effigy mounds.

Photo courtesy Dr. Robert Benfer. More photos, including Google Earth images, can be seen here.