Tattooed Mummy Unlocks Peru’s Moche Culture

By Ines Guzman

HUACA CAO VIEJO, Peru — Archeologists probing Peru’s lifeless northern desert discovered a 1,500-year-old mummy that may unlock secrets of the Moche, one of the mysterious civilizations that once ruled the Andean nation.

Baptized the Lady of Cao by researchers after it was found by a ceremonial pyramid near the Pacific Ocean, the tattooed mummy is the first female Moche leader ever discovered. It could debunk theories that the culture, known for its pottery and human sacrifices, was governed only by men.

Unveiling the mummy this week, U.S. and Peruvian archeologists said the woman, who probably died during childbirth at age 25, had religious and magical figures of spiders and snakes tattooed on her arms, much to the surprise of the investigating experts.

“The conservation of her body is exceptional. We found her buried with mercury sulfide that helped eliminate microorganisms and help the preservation,” said Regulo Franco, one of the archeologists who has spent 16 years excavating the Huaca Cao Viejo pyramid with funding from a Peruvian bank.

The Lady of Cao was found with two ceremonial war clubs and 23 spear throwers — sticks that propel spears — puzzling archeologists who say such items have previously only been found in male Moche graves.

The woman was also buried with three other mummies, including a teenage girl found alongside her who was probably strangled as a sacrifice to the Moche leader.

Those mummies will be unwrapped over the next few months. Archeologists, backed by Peruvian bank and government funding and by the U.S.-based National Geographic Society, hope to extract DNA to see if they are the bodies of relatives.

The culture of the Moche, who constructed the largest adobe pyramid in the Americas, the Moche Sun Pyramid, developed along Peru’s northern coast near what is now the country’s third-largest city Trujillo. It flourished in the river valley oases from 100 A.D. to 800 A.D. The Lady of Cao dates to 450


The Moche were later conquered by the Chimus, who were known for elaborate irrigation systems and built Chan Chan, one of the world’s largest adobe cities.

They in turn were conquered by the Incas, who built a civilization that stretched from the Equator to the Pacific coast of Chile and are best known for the Machu Picchu citadel in southern Peru.

Their rule came to an abrupt end in the 1530s when they were subjugated by the Spanish Conquistadors.

The Moche’s Huaca Cao Viejo pyramid is covered in reliefs that suggest prisoners were sacrificed to the gods by a warrior-priest. It was abandoned for centuries.

Moche pottery has been the main way that experts had interpreted their culture. The ceramics showed the Moche had well-developed weaving techniques, but because of rainstorms every few decades, most of their textiles have been destroyed.

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