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New Find Pushes Peru Civilization Back to 3500 B.C.

A team of German and Peruvian archaeologists say they have discovered the oldest known monument in Peru: a 5,500-year-old ceremonial plaza near Peru's north-central coast.

Carbon dating of material from the site revealed it was built between 3500 B.C. and 3000 B.C., Peter Fuchs, a German archaeologist who headed the excavation team, told The Associated Press by telephone Monday.

The discovery is further evidence that civilization thrived in Peru at the same time as it did in what is now the Middle East and South Asia, said Ruth Shady, a prominent Peruvian archaeologist who led the team that discovered the ancient city of Caral in 2001.

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Shady serves as a senior adviser to Peru's National Culture Institute and was not involved in the project.

The find also raises questions about what prompted "civilizations to form throughout the planet at more or less the same time," Shady said.

The circular, sunken plaza, built of stones and adobe, is part of the Sechin Bajo archaeological complex in Andes foothills, 206 miles northwest of Lima, where Fuchs and fellow German archaeologist Renate Patzschke have been working since 1992.

It predates similar monuments and plazas found in Caral, which nonetheless remains the oldest known city in the Americas dating back to 2627 B.C.

The plaza served as a social and ritual space where ancient peoples celebrated their "thoughts about the world, their place within it, and images of their world and themselves," Fuchs said.

In an adjacent structure, built around 1800 B.C., Fuchs' team uncovered a 3,600-year-old adobe frieze — six feet tall — depicting the iconic image of a human sacrificer "standing with open arms, holding a ritual knife in one hand and a human head in the other," Fuchs said.

The mythic image was also found in the celebrated Moche Lords of Sipan tombs, discovered on Peru's northern coast in the late 1980s.

Walter Alva, the Peruvian archaeologist who uncovered the Lords of Sipan tombs, said the plaza found in Fuchs' dig was probably utilized by an advanced civilization with economic stability, a necessary condition to construct such a ceremonial site.

The excavation was the fourth in a series of digs at the Sechin Bajo complex that Fuchs and Patzschke began on behalf of the University of Berlin in 1992. Deutsche Forschung Gemeinschaft, a German state agency created to sponsor scientific investigations, has financed the most recent three digs.

The find "shows the world that in America too, human beings of the New World had the same capacity to create civilization as those in the Old World," Shady said.

Her discovery, Caral, made headlines in 2001 when researchers carbon-dated material from the city back to 2627 B.C., proving that a complex urban center in the Americas thrived as a contemporary to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt — 1,500 years earlier than previously believed.