Before the ancient Incan Empire ruled over the Andes of South America, there existed an oft-forgotten civilization that pre-dated the Incans by 500 years, known as Tiwanaku. Now archaeologists have unearthed rare artifacts about these ancient people that speaks of a mysterious religion that may have been surprisingly widespread for its time.

In the first systematic archaeological dive conducted in the waters of the Khoa Reef, close to the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, researched have discovered sunken relics that may represent ritual offerings made to long-lost supernatural deities.

"People often associate the Island of the Sun with the Incas because it was an important pilgrimage location for them and because they left behind numerous ceremonial buildings and offerings on and around this island," said Penn State anthropologist Jose Capriles, in a press release. "Our research shows that the Tiwanaku people, who developed in Lake Titicaca between 500 and 1,100 AD, were the first people to offer items of value to religious deities in the area."

Among the items discovered were puma-shaped incense burners, with fragments of charcoal present on the excavated deposits, and a number of gold, shell, and stone ornaments. Also found were collections of young llama bones, which might be the remains of sacrificial offerings.

All of these discoveries were accompanied by nearby ancient anchors, indicating that they were meant to be sunk as part of the ritual.

"The presence of anchors near the offerings suggests that officiating authorities may have deposited the offerings during rituals held from boats," said Capriles.

The puma is a common symbol in ancient Tiwanaku artifacts, but this is the first indication that it may also have held religious meaning. While it's impossible to know exactly what these long-ago acts of offering signified, researchers speculate that the deity being worshipped may have been a precursor to Viracocha, the supreme god of the Incans. Viracocha was said to have created the universe, sun, moon, and stars, time, and civilization itself. It was worshipped as god of the sun and of storms, and was typically represented as wearing the sun for a crown, with thunderbolts in his hands, and tears descending from his eyes as rain.

This may have had roots in ancient Tiwanaku lore, given that the Island of the Sun was also an important place of pilgrimage for Incan worshippers.

"It was a strategic and ritually charged place," said Capriles. "At the Island of the Sun and the Khoa Reef, religious specialists could come together for sacred ceremonies. The ritual offerings they made here demonstrate the transitioning of societies from more local-based religious systems to something that had a more ambitious geopolitical and spiritual appeal."

Archaeologists just discovered an ancient South American mystery religion
Artifacts uncovered at the bottom of Lake Titicaca show this religion pre-dated the Incas by 500 years.