The staff god is also depicted on a gateway at Tiwanaku. Credit: ©

Archaeologists have found the oldest image yet of an Andean religious icon.

The 4,000-year-old carving of the Staff god - a fanged creature with splayed feet, holding a snake and a staff - is on a bowl made from a seed pod. The artefact was probably a funeral offering, hinting that organized religion was established in South America one-and-a-half millennia earlier than suspected1.

Until now, the oldest depiction of the Staff god dated to 1,000 BC. The image appears on textiles and pottery urns of the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures dating all the way through to 1000 AD. The deity is best known from the carved gateway at Tiwanaku, near Lake Titicaca, a city that thrived around 200 AD.

"The Staff god has been through many different incarnations," says Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Haas' team unearthed the softball-sized gourd at a burial ground in Peru's Patavilca River valley. It has been radiocarbon-dated to 2500 BC. "No one thought that Andean religion itself would date back that far," says Haas.

The icon's age hints that a complex Andean civilization with politics, ceremonies and religion radiated from a single location, the team argues.

"It's a great find," agrees Peruvian archaeologist Abelardo Sandoval of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. "My major concern would be about the date," says Sandoval. If other objects from the site show similar dates, the claim will be more reliable, he explains.

The burial site lies near the modern town of Barranca in the Norte Chico region of the Peruvian Coast. Twenty-six urban centres have been found here, including Caral, a tiny village of short pyramids called platform mounds in the Supe Valley2, that dates back to 2627 BC.

"The region is rewriting Andean history," says Haas. Before Norte Chico, only a handful of scattered sites were known, and archaeologists believed Andean culture emerged in a piecemeal fashion. "This is the unfolding of Andean civilization outwards."