Peruvian site yields a golden discovery

Archaeologists may not be fashion divas, but they dig antique jewelry. Consider the discovery of 4,000-year-old gold and stone beads in southeastern Peru. These crafted items, the oldest examples of worked gold in the Americas by about 600 years, were strung together into a necklace, say Mark Aldenderfer of the University of Arizona in Tucson and his colleagues.

ALL THAT GLITTERS. Investigators strung gold and stone beads found at a 4,000-year-old site in Peru to re-create an ancient necklace. Aldenderfer, PNAS

An excavation of a burial pit containing the partial remains of an adult and a child at a small site called Jiskairumoko turned up the ancient gold necklace. Nine gold and 11 stone beads lay interspersed in a circle just under the adult’s jaw. Distinctive marks on the beads indicate that gold nuggets were flattened with a stone hammer and bent around a hard, cylindrical object to form tube-shaped beads, in Aldenderfer’s view.

Radiocarbon measurements of burned wood found near the jaw provided the age estimate.

Earlier research at the site indicated that a hunter-gatherer group lived there seasonally, probably from spring into summer. At the time, these people were shifting from a nomadic to a sedentary, village life, according to Aldenderfer’s team.

The finding challenges the traditional view that techniques for making high-status, gold objects emerged only in complex societies capable of generating and storing large food surpluses. The ancient folk at Jiskairumoko inhabited a simpler setting, storing relatively little food. Nonetheless, they fashioned gold into a necklace that signaled the social prestige of its wearer, the researchers conclude in the April 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content