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Ancient Peruvian Queen Mummy and her Sacrifice Victims to Undergo DNA Analysis

Ancient Peruvian Queen Mummy and her Sacrifice Victims to Undergo DNA Analysis

A research delegation from Harvard University is making a visit this week to Peru to take DNA samples from the mummified remains of the famous Señora de Cao (‘Lady of Cao’), a powerful queen of the ancient Moche civilization. Her DNA will be compared to that of the other people buried with her—apparent sacrifice victims. The researchers aim to determine if the other people buried with the Lady of Cao were related to her, and if so, how.

Jeffrey Quilter, head of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, will lead the research. He said the results of the DNA analysis of the queen and the funeral cortege buried with her, five people in all, will be released by late 2016 or early 2017,  according to Peru This Week.

A replica of the Lady of Cao based on the items she was buried with

A replica of the Lady of Cao based on the items she was buried with ( public domain )

One of the people buried with the Lady of Cao was a child. The grave goods buried with her suggest that she was a ruler of her people. In the tomb were robes, nose rings, ceremonial batons and headdresses and other signs of wealth and status.

The woman was buried at Huaca el Brujo (Sacred Place of the Wizard) in the capital of Moche on the beautiful northern coastline of Peru overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as Margaret Moose reported in Ancient Origins in 2014. The two main pyramids there, 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. She died in her mid-20s about 1,500 years ago, probably as a complication of childbirth.

The mummified remains of the Lady of Cao

The mummified remains of the Lady of Cao ( ethnicjewelsmagazine.com)

The Moche did not mummify their dead purposefully, but desiccation preserved the Lady of Cao and also her intricate tattoos.  Although it is not believed that 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 connection with the divine through sympathetic magic.

The surprise discovery of the tattooed female in the Hill of the Wizard certainly caused archaeologists to reconsider their male-centric model of the Moche political structure. She may well have eventually been considered 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 if they had been turn-of-the-century discoveries the women in these tombs probably would have been remembered in history as wives, regents, or concubines.

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 centre of the Moche civilization.

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 centre of the Moche civilization. ( public domain )

The Moche flourished from about 200 BC to 600 AD and acquired enough power to become an important early civilization of the early Andes cultures. They were fabulous artists and had agriculture and metalworking but no writing.

The Moche was a mysterious civilization which ruled the northern coast of Peru. They built huge pyramids made of millions of mud bricks and created an extensive network of aqueducts which enabled them to irrigate crops in their dry desert location. They were also pioneers of metalworking techniques like gilding and soldering, which enabled them to create intricate jewelry and artifacts.

Little was known about the Moche civilization because they left no written texts to help explain their beliefs and customs. However, the discovery of detailed paintings and murals on pottery work and on temple walls has helped to provide insights into their culture and beliefs.

The Huaca de la Luna site is famous for its massive mural which covers 200 square feet and portrays vivid scenes of human sacrifice, war and violence, as well as more mundane scenes such as people capturing birds with nets, fishing from a reed boat still used locally today, and even smelting gold.

The ancient Moche site of Huaca de Luna, ‘Temple of the Moon’

The ancient Moche site of Huaca de Luna, ‘Temple of the Moon’ ( public domain )

Top image: The tattooed arm of the Lady of Cao ( archaeology.org)

By Mark Miller

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