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Gold earrings, two knives, a collection of shells, and ceramic containers were uncovered from a flooded Lambayeque tomb.

DNA tests to unravel mystery of Peruvian priestess and burial companions

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About 800 years ago, a high status Peruvian woman was buried with seven people and a llama. Some theorize that her burial companions were her relatives, while others maintain they were servants. Now Harvard University will test DNA from the remains to settle the dispute regarding the woman who has come to be known as the ‘Chornancap priestess’.

Andina news agency reports that the tests will determine whether the people are related, and whether they came from the part of Lambayeque in which they were found, or from another part of South America.

In 2011, archaeologists with the Hans Bruning National Archeological Museum of Lambayeque, Peru, found her mummified remains while excavating the Chotuna-Chornancap pyramid complex on the Pacific Coast. They later reconstructed her face. Based on the wealth of her burial, researchers said she was one of the most powerful people in the Lambayeque region. They estimated her age at 25 to 30 years.

Facial reconstruction of the ‘Chornancap priestess’

Facial reconstruction of the ‘Chornancap priestess’ (Screengrab from YouTube video, NTDTV)

The Peruvian priestess was found propped in a seated position. She was adorned with a copper mask, an elaborate crown and gold earspools, and her body was clothed in textiles woven with copper plates, necklaces made of carved shells and colored beads. She also had with her a gold scepter with the image of a Lambayeque god, which suggests the woman's importance. She had with her artifacts from the high Andes Mountains region and from even farther away, Ecuador. These gifts, archaeologists say, show that her influence was felt across the region.

Researchers speculated she was a priestess because of inscriptions and because during the final period of the Lambayeque civilization females were in positions of high religious authority, according to the blog Bones Don't Lie.

The woman of high status was buried in a seated position above the people buried below her.

The woman of high status was buried in a seated position above the people buried below her. (Drawing by Carlos Wester La Torre)

The woman had ceremonial urns with icons and objects, including the gold scepter.

“This is all extraordinary information for us because it clearly places the woman within the power structure of a complex society, and reveals that power and religious hierarchy were not the sole province of men, since there is no reason to think there were not more women just like her,” Carlos Wester La Torre told Hispanically Speaking News in 2012.

He compared the woman to priestesses exhumed 20 years ago at San Jose de More. These were women who held religious authority among the Moche people of northern Peru between 100 BC and 700 AD. He also compared her to the Lady of Cao, who was believed to have had supernatural power and was the only woman known to have ruled ancient Peru.

Pyramids at Túcume, a Lambayeque city

Pyramids at Túcume, a Lambayeque city (Photo by Antonio Velasco/Wikimedia Commons)

“Curiously, it was in the last years of both cultures that women were seen in religious life and positions of power. We still have to see whether this female presence was a political response of society at a time of crisis in order to regain stability, or was a conscious response to the need to have females in power,” Wester said.

The Lambayeque culture dated from about 800 to 1375 AD. Because few artifacts of these people have been recovered little is known about the beginnings of the civilization. Bones Don't Lie says there is a debate as to whether they replaced the Moche people or are descended from them.

Based on burial practices, they appear to have been a highly stratified society and apparently had several ranks of nobility. People of high status were buried deep in shafts, seated and had with them different types of exotic grave artifacts.

Spectacular gold ware from the Lambayeque culture

Spectacular gold ware from the Lambayeque culture (Wikimedia Commons)

Scholars don't think the Lambayeque rulers attempted regional conquest. The Chimú empire defeated and assimilated them beginning about 1375 AD. Artisans were made to relocate to Chan Chan, capital of the Chimú. This propagated a continuity in Andean art.

Earlier in June 2015, researchers excavated the tombs of 14 ancient Peruvians at an ongoing archaeological dig in the Lambayeque area. The researchers also are excavating a temple there. The tombs and temple are considered pre-Inca, a civilization that came later in Peruvian history.

Archaeologists Edgar Bracamonte Lévano and Walter Alva Alva found the 14 tombs and valuable artifacts at Bola de Oro-El Triunfo. Most of the tombs are of the Sican or Lambayeque culture or civilization and the rest from Moche and Chimu periods, according to El Comercio.

Featured image: Gold earrings, two knives, a collection of shells, and ceramic containers were uncovered from a flooded Lambayeque tomb. (Photograph by Carlos Wester La Torre)

By Mark Miller

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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