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.

New discoveries reveal life and times of the Roman Emperor Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian, HadrianThe Emperor Hadrian is one of Rome’s most famous emperors, ruling at the height of the Empire from 117-138 AD. His villa just north of Rome is a popular tourist attraction, yet some Italian researchers have discovered what countless visitors never noticed: the buildings are aligned with astronomical events.

On the summer solstice (June 21 this year) light passes through an opening above a doorway and shines on a niche in the opposite wall. The niche probably contained the statue of some deity. This sort of light effect has been found in other ancient sites. Another building is aligned both to the summer and winter (December 21 this year) solstices, during which the light shines through a row of doors.

The effects may have been part of the worship of Isis. Originally an Egyptian goddess, a popular mystery religion grew up around her in the Roman Empire.

Hadrian’s other famous monument, Hadrian’s Wall, is also the site of a recent discovery. At the fort of Vindolanda, dozens of circular huts have been discovered that don’t look like anything the Romans built. In fact, they look like the huts of the tribes living north of the wall in Scotland, outside the direct influence of the Roman Empire. These may have been homes for refugees from friendly tribes fleeing common enemies, perhaps during the invasion of Scotland by Emperor Septimius Severus (ruled 193-211 AD) or the homes of temporary workers who lived along the wall and served the Romans.

For more on Hadrian’s Wall and a hike you can take along the entire length, check out my series on hiking Hadrian’s Wall.

[Photo courtesy Jastrow]