Archeologists have unearthed 19 anthropomorphic wooden statues in Chan Chan, an abandoned city (and now archeological site) north of Lima, Peru. The statues are thought to be more than 750 years old, making them the oldest icons found in that region.
The Peruvian Ministry of Culture provided a press release explaining the find on Monday.
A team of archeologists discovered the figures tucked into tiny alcoves lining a corridor that led to an intricately decorated ceremonial courtyard or plaza. Each is just 70 centimeters (28 inches) high and remains in good condition. While some appear to be holding staff and shields, others are decapitated. Those with the head still intact don slightly sinister-looking, beige-colored clay masks.
The rest of the corridor was decorated with high relief drawings, emblazoned in wave and zoomorphic motifs, including felines and lunar animals. According to the Ministry, this is the first entry corridor to a ceremonial courtyard fully decorated in mud reliefs to be found in Chan Chan.
Today, it is a UNESCO world heritage site, but back in the 15th century, Chan Chan was the busy, wealthy capital of the Chimú Kingdom. It is thought to be the largest city in pre-Columbian America, measuring 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) in total. In the center of the metropolis, there were six autonomous "citadels" or "palaces", which together formed an area of 6 square kilometers (2.3 square miles). Within each of these units, the Chimú people built temples, dwellings, and storehouses.
From this base, its ruler – the Chimú monarch – ran an empire that extended 970 kilometers (603 miles) from a place just south of Ecuador to central Peru. Society was strict and hierarchical based on the premise that humans were not born equal. According to the Smithsonian, the Chimú believed the Sun populated the world with three eggs: one gold (for the ruling elites), another silver (for their wives), and the third copper (for everyone else).
The Chimú Kingdom (and the city of Chan Chan) reached its apex in the 15th century when an estimated 60,000 lived in the capital. However, it was not long after this that things came crashing down for the Chimús. The Incas came and conquered, tearing the empire to pieces before stealing the city's skilled craftsmen and taking them back to their capital, Cuzco.
But archeologists believe these particular statues predate the Chan Chan culture. According to Reuters, they may come from 1,100 CE.