The 4,000 year-old gourd fragment. (Photo by Jonathan Hass, Courtesy of the Field Museum)
This image of a god or goddess with a fanged mouth and clawed feet may be the oldest religious icon in the Americas.
According to archaeologists, it pushes back the dawn of religion in the region by 1,000 years.
The fragment of a bowl dated to about 4,000 years ago bears the image of the Staff God, the main deity in the Andes for thousands of years.
The figure was found at a looted cemetery on the coast of Peru, 120 miles north of Lima.
The area appears to have been the ancestral home of pre-Inca civilisation.
"Like the cross, the Staff God is a clearly recognisable religious icon," said Jonathan Haas, MacArthur curator of North American anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago.
"This appears to be the oldest identifiable religious icon found in the Americas.
"It indicates that organised religion began in the Andes more than 1,000 years earlier than previously thought."
Sketch of the god or goddess. (Drawing by Jill Seagard, Courtesy of the Field Museum)
The icon has been found on many ancient artefacts belonging to several Andean cultures.
It usually has a fanged mouth, and splayed and clawed feet, and holds a staff in one or both hands.
Snakes are often depicted on the figure's headdress or garments.
The discovery is reported in the latest edition of the journal Archaeology.