Archaeologists in Peru have unearthed the ruins of a pre-Incan temple which appears to date back to about 2,000 years before the time of Jesus Christ and features colourful murals which may be the oldest found anywhere in the Americas.
"It's a temple that is about 4,000 years old," said Walter Alva, who in the 1980s led excavations of the nearby Sipan temple complex that includes the tomb of a pre-Incan king dating from about 1,700 years ago. Both sites are in the Lambayeque valley, a desert area close to the Pacific Ocean in the north of the country.
The new discovery is especially significant because of its extraordinary antiquity. It was dated after materials from the site were sent to the US for carbon analysis. "What is surprising are the construction methods, the architectural design and, most of all, the existence of murals that could be the oldest in the Americas," Mr Alva added.
The temple, built out of bricks crafted from sediment found into local rivers, rather than rocks, has been named Ventarron. It features a staircase rising to what appears to have been an altar for the worship of fire gods, as well as murals in white, red and yellow. One wall painting depicts a deer being hunted with nets.
Ventarron will join Peru's impressive inventory of archaeological treasures, which most notably include Machu Picchu in the Andes – recently voted one of the seven new wonders of the world. The ruins at Machu Picchu are considerably younger than those at Ventarron, however. They date from the Incan empire, which spanned several centuries until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, and stretched from Colombia and Ecuador in the north to what are now Peru and Chile in the south.
Mr Alva said the temple at Ventarron was built by an "advanced civilisation" and provided fresh evidence of the importance of the region, about 470 miles north of Lima, as a crossroads of cultural exchange during that period between communities in the Pacific region and the rest of Peru.
It also suggests the existence of an evolved human society with well-developed traditions of worship, construction, decoration and hunting. "This discovery shows an architectural and iconographic tradition different from what has been known until now," Mr Alva added. "There is no other monument in existence in the north of Peru that has these characteristics."
It is believed that temples of the pre-Incan period were deliberately buried and revered as sacred sites when they were no longer considered of importance. This probably explains why many are found in a surprisingly good state of repair. When Mr Alva first began exploring Ventarron, it was covered by a rubbish tip. He conceded that some bricks may have been removed by locals to build homes and pig pens.
The temple is close to the larger excavation at Sipan, which has been under Mr Alva's the supervision since the 1980s. Most of the structures unearthed at Sipan, including three adobe pyramids, ramps and platforms, have been traced to the pre-Incan Moche civilisation, which is believed to have occupied the region from AD200 to AD800.
The most thrilling discoveries at Sipan were royal tombs filled with gold and other examples of clothing and ceramics associated with the Moche elite, including the Lord of Sipan Tomb. Mr Alva is also the director of the Sipan Royal Tombs Museum at the site.
While the murals at Ventarra may be older than any seen in the Americas, the temple itself may be slightly younger than the remains of the ancient city of Caral, also near the Peruvian coast, which has been dated to 2,627BC.