Finally unearthed after 4,000 years, the Peruvian fire temple
Peru's leading archaeologist, Dr Walter Alva, 56, said the temple was apparently constructed by an "advanced civilisation" because it was built with mud bricks made from sediment found in local rivers, instead of rocks.
Indications are that the temple at Ventarron, 470 miles north of Lima, was dedicated to the worship of fire and making offerings to deities by the Caral culture, which dates back to 2,600BC, the oldest known American civilisation.
The construction of Ventarron itself appears to have taken place 600 years later, according to samples sent to the US for carbon dating.
Dr Alva said: "It's a temple that is about 4,000 years old. It is very early, very original."
Pointing at blue and yellow murals featuring a deer, he added: "This discovery shows an architectural and iconographic tradition different from what has been known until now. There is no other monument in existence in the north of Peru that has these characteristics.
"What's surprising are the construction methods, the architectural design and most of all the existence of murals that could be the oldest in the Americas. "The discovery of this temple reveals evidence suggesting the region of Lambayeque was one of great cultural exchange between the Pacific coast and the rest of Peru.
The temple is in such good condition, he added, because it was buried by the same people that built it. Once the temple had finished its purpose, it was covered as a sacred site in what appeared to include a ceremony, as the skeleton of a monkey was found alongside a mother-of-pearl shell and turquoise.
This deliberate covering of the site ensured the foundations and the murals were preserved. It was further preserved by the fact that a rubbish dump lay on top of it, although locals had dug up parts of the complex, using the bricks to build animal pens and repair houses. Before excavation could begin, 130 lorries' worth of refuse had to be removed.
Dr Alva has turned archaeology into his life and that of his family. He and his wife, Susana Meneses, also an archaeologist, made their names when seeking to prevent looting of sites in the 1980s in the Lambayeque valley, just a few miles from the latest discovery of Ventarron.
When they arrived at a site locals were pillaging, they began digging and found what are now called the Royal Tombs of Sipan, where two burial chambers of kings of the Moche civilisation, 1,700 years old, were found filled with gold artefacts. Dr Alva is now the director of the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan, although he is currently spending most of his time at Ventarron.