Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Tattooed Sorceress Queen

Tomb of the Tattooed Sorceress Queen, The Lady of Cao

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The day had been spent in ritual battles, and a group of individuals who were vanquished, naked, and tied-together were marched up the long stairs to the top platform of the great pyramid where there they were killed, throats cut, sacrificed to their supreme deity. A great silver goblet, the mark of a ruler in Moche society, was used to collect the blood and then the blood was consumed by the priestess-queen and the circle was completed, for life feeds on life, and this seems to have been a fundamental cultural concept for the violent, passionate Moche society. 

This ritual is depicted on the walls of the Moche temples and while not a great deal is known about this enigmatic pre-Incan culture, what we do know from their wall paintings and reliefs as well as their exquisitely executed pottery is that these people lived life as voraciously as they embraced death. They celebrated nature, engaged in sexual acts, violence, birth, and death with great aplomb, accepting and celebrating the balance and duality of the world. 

Unveiling the Surprising Truth: The Mysterious Moche Culture and Their Unexpected Discoveries 

When archaeologists first began to discover these images of Moche life painted on their tomb walls and molded in their pottery, they thought that the depictions were so horrific surely, they could not be real – the pictures must be some sort of metaphorical representation of cosmic events, and certainly no culture could really have powerful blood-drinking priestess mystics who ruled such a society.  Surely, people so violent and literally blood-thirsty must be ruled by men?  

A separated, ceremonial space for use by priests beside the tomb

A separated, ceremonial space for use by priests beside the tomb of the "Senora de Cao", a female spiritual and political Moche leader. Huaca Cao Viejo, El Brujo archaeological complex, La Libertad, Peru.  El Brujo was an important center of the Moche civilization. (Public Domain) 

Rich tombs had been excavated from the Moche culture but one of the most famous was the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, discovered in 1987. Based on the findings in his tomb it was of course assumed that this was a male-controlled society, but the tombs of the Moche had many surprises yet to come and the first was the tattooed mummy of El Brujo in 2006. 

Huaca del Sol

Huaca del Sol (in the distance) and Huaca de la Luna (front), religious and ceremonial centers of the Moche civilisation. Moche river delta and present-day Trujillo city in the background. (Tyler Bell/CC BY 2.0) 

On the beautiful northern coastline of Peru overlooking the blue Pacific, the place known as Huaca El Brujo (Sacred place of the Wizard) gives us an incredible glimpse into the culture of the Moche and the ‘Wizard’ buried there.  Its two main pyramids, Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna, were once the center of social and religious functions in the area and the final resting place of the tattooed mummy, who has come to be known as the Lady of Cao. Not an elderly woman, she died in her mid-twenties about fifteen hundred years ago, probably as a complication of childbirth. 

A replica of the Lady of Cao

A replica of the Lady of Cao (Manuel González Olaechea y Franco/CC BY-SA 3.0) 

The Moche did not mummify their dead purposefully, but the conditions for desiccation just happened to preserve the Lady of Cao and by doing so also preserved her intricate tattoos.  Although it is not believed that the more common members of Moche society were tattooed it could certainly be inferred from this burial that the highest status members were, and the tattoos probably represented and strengthened the individuals connection with the divine through sympathetic magic. If you want the strength of the tiger, get a tattoo of a tiger…this thought process has not changed since the beginning of the art form and it continues today. 

The Lady of Cao’s tattoos included serpents, crabs and spiders – all animals associated with the Moche pantheon of divine creatures – and their presence further linked her to the world of the supernatural and probably increased her perceived power among her people; the divine literally lived in her skin. Since most Moche burials are not preserved like the Lady of Cao we will never know for certain if all the elite were tattooed, but pottery portrait jugs suggest that they may have been. 

Reevaluating Moche Society: Unveiling Female Rulers 

The surprise discovery of the tattooed female in the Hill of the Wizard certainly caused archaeologists to have to reconsider their male-centric model of the Moche political structure and I am sure they would have eventually come to consider her an anomalous female ruler like Hatshepsut, Boudicca, Makeda, Cleopatra, or Penthesilea.  But the subsequent discoveries of eight more Moche Queens have made it quite clear that this was not a male ruled society. It appears that Moche society was based on loosely aligned ‘states’ ruled by high priest kings or priestess queens and that the division of government was of a more balanced nature. Most of these discoveries have been within the past decade  and I truly believe if they had been turn-of-the-century discoveries the women in these tombs would have been remembered in history as ‘wives, regents or concubines’, not the rulers that they were. I think one of the greatest hidden mysteries of our past is that our societies have not always been male dominated as we have been led to believe, and hopefully more objective archaeology in the future will tell us more. 

Several years ago, when I first read of the discovery of the tattooed mummy and her fabulous riches, I was immediately struck by the statement in the article that they were confused as to who she might be. I thought, she is buried in the Sacred Place of the Wizard…she is the wizard, the sorceress. I guess if it had been called the Place of the Secretary there would have been no confusion. 

Top image: Remarkable Tattooed Mummy of the Lady of Cao, Peru. Source: John Verano & Régulo Franco, El Brujo Project 


Dean, C. Andean Androgyny and the Making of Men. 

Klein, CF, Quilter J. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Available at:  

Sutherland, S. 2013. Unearthed Peruvian tomb confirms that women ruled over brutal ancient culture. Available at: 

Unknown. 2006. Tattooed mummy, baptized the Lady of Cao, discovered in Peru. MSN News, AP, National Geographic 

Unknown. Remarkable Tattooed Mummy Brought Back To Life In Stunning Realistic Recreation. Available at: 

Williams, A. Mystery of the Tattooed Mummy, An ornately tattooed 1,600-year-old mummy unearthed in Peru could be a warrior queen of the violent Moche people. National Geographic 

Williams, A. 2013. Tomb of a Powerful Moche Priestess-Queen Found in Peru Discovery helps change ideas about the roles of elite women in Moche society. National Geographic.  

Wilford, J. 2006. Moche mummy likely a ruler or warrior princess .  



They didn't just pluck the idea out of the air Evidence for this theory were found A recent study suggests that the Lady of Cao, a spectacularly well-preserved mummy found in northern Peru in 2006, died of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The warrior woman and leader, whose 1,600-year-old remains are now housed at El Brujo Archaeological Complex in La Libertad, is believed to have suffered from eclampsia, a condition that causes seizures during pregnancy.

According to Jordi Esteban Farre, a Spanish forensic doctor conducting research on the mummy, evidence from her arms and the tissue on her hands suggests that she withstood intense seizures. He further explained that the position in which she was found—with her wrists in perfect condition, even though her arms were oddly positioned—has a pathological significance, pointing to death by convulsion.

Though he recognizes that it is difficult to prove, Esteban Farre cites extensive evidence supporting his hypothesis. Eclampsia causes not only seizures, but also respiratory and circulatory problems in pregnant women. Although it is a relatively rare complication, even today an estimated 50,000 women die of eclampsia annually.

So, the Lady of Cao was pregnant—probably in her third trimester, judging by the stretch marks on her abdomen—and died during complications at birth. It is unclear if she successfully delivered or if the complications caused a stillbirth. Esteban Farre suggests that she died approximately 48 hours after the onset of labor, since her pelvic muscles and ligaments are stretched, as they would be after delivery.

What I found interesting is the theory is that she died in childbirth... which begs the question, why is it that when ever a young female died in ancient history it must have been due to complications in childbirth??? Surely women did more than give birth back then!

angieblackmon's picture

very interesting....a little gruesome, but i always like to hear about when women ruled the world! :)

love, light and blessings


Frequently Asked Questions

The Lady of Cao was wrapped in a cotton funerary bundle with pieces of gold and jewelry, indicating her high status. Her grave contained numerous clubs and spears, which is unusual in Moche culture.  

The Moche are well known for their art, especially their naturalistic and articulate pottery, particularly in the form of stirrup-spout vessels. The ceramics incorporate a wide-ranging subject matter, both in shape and painted decorations, including representations of people, animals, and ritual scenes. 

The civilization may have succumbed to earthquakes, prolonged drought, catastrophic flooding arising from the El Niño climatic anomaly, the encroachment of sand dunes on populated areas, or less-tangible social and cultural factors. 

margaretmoose's picture


Margaret Moose

Margaret F. Moose is a native North Carolinian. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she studied cultural and physical anthropology and fine art. She then attended the University of Pittsburgh and did graduate... Read More

Next article