for National Geographic News
March 31, 2008
A nine-bead necklace discovered in Peru is the oldest known gold artifact in the Americas, archaeologists say.
The necklace, dated to 2100 B.C., was uncovered in a burial pit near Lake Titicaca next to the jawbone of an adult skull
Prior to this discovery, the oldest known gold artifacts in the New World were found in central Peru at sites dated to around 1500 to 1410 B.C.
The burial pit was found near the ancient settlement of Jiskairumoko, which dates back to 3300 B.C.
The beads were hammered from gold nuggets and suggest the development of an early sedentary culture, said lead study author Mark Aldenderfer, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona.
"What this discovery is really telling us is that the people who were living at this site were undergoing a rather profound social and economic transition towards sedentary life," he said.
"Once that process starts, a lot of the social rules of life when you're a hunter-gatherer change dramatically such that different kinds of institutions are beginning to be created," he added.
The discovery is detailed in this week's issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
Aldenderfer and his team found the site during an archaeological survey of the region in the mid-1990s and began excavating it in 1999.
The aim of the project was to understand how hunting and gathering cultures became more sedentary and created small villages.
"As we began to excavate, [the site] in fact did have a lot of very cool information—houses that were never discovered in the Andes before and a variety of other kinds of features," Aldenderfer said.
"Of course, the discovery of the burial with the gold was kind of an extra at that point—it was completely unexpected."
Aldenderfer and his colleagues dated the site using a fragment of wood charcoal found in association with the burial.
Mark of Status?
Researchers suspect that the bones found in the pit belong to a female, because all the other burials at the site from this time frame are of women.
"We're fairly certain this necklace was used as a real mark of high status for this individual," Aldenderfer said.
"That doesn't mean they were an important political leader, but it does mean that the individual had a certain level of prestige and connections to the world to be able to obtain this necklace."
John Hoopes, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas who was not involved with the study, said the link between gold and status in some ancient cultures remains unclear.
(See related photos: "Gold-Mining, Burial Artifacts Unearthed on Nile" [June 19, 2007].)
"I think the statement that the individual who had the gold necklace was wealthy and important runs the risk of circular reasoning: Did this person have gold because they were wealthy and important, or were they wealthy and important because they had gold?" Hoopes said.
"The main implication of this discovery is that gold was being used for ornamentation before the appearance of complex social organization," he added.
"The people of Jiskairumoko apparently valued gold because it was a pretty, noncorroding, malleable material."