5,000-year-old ceremonial temple discovered beneath sand dune in Peru

An archaeological site covered in sand
The 5,000-year-old temple includes walls decorated with friezes. (Image credit: DDC Lambayeque)

Archaeologists have unearthed the ruins of a 5,000-year-old ceremonial temple and human skeletal remains beneath a sand dune in Peru.

The temple site, which is located in the Zaña (also spelled Saña) district of northwestern Peru, is part of the Los Paredones de la Otra Banda-Las Ánimas Archaeological Complex, according to a translated statement from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.

After excavations began on June 3, the researchers discovered what was left of the walls of a multistory temple. Wedged between the walls were the skeletons of three adults.

The burials, which contain offerings wrapped in cloth, offer evidence that this could have been the site of a sacrificial ritual, Channel News Asia reported.

Related: Suspected thieves nearly swipe pre-Hispanic artifacts from an archaeological site in Peru

"We are probably looking at a 5,000-year-old religious complex that is in an archaeological space defined by walls built of mud," Luis Armando Muro Ynoñán, director of the Archaeological Project of Cultural Landscapes of Úcupe - Zaña Valley, said in the statement. "We have what would have been a central staircase from which one would ascend to a kind of stage in the central part."

The walls were decorated with intricate friezes depicting images of the human body with a bird's head, feline features and reptilian claws. The upper portions of the walls were coated in a "fine plaster with a pictorial design," according to the statement. 

Researchers also unearthed another monument dating to sometime between A.D. 600 and 700, which would have been during Peru's Moche period. The Moche, who engaged in human sacrifice, are known for their large temples and fine works of art, including ceramic goblets shaped to look like human heads. The team also identified the burial of a child who was 5 or 6 years old, but that burial took place years later.

Jennifer Nalewicki
Live Science Staff Writer

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and more. She covers several science topics from planet Earth to paleontology and archaeology to health and culture. Prior to freelancing, Jennifer held an Editor role at Time Inc. Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.