Science & Technology

Lady of Cao: the woman who changed the history of Ancient Peru

By Fernando Gimeno

Lima, Jul 1 (EFE).- Considered to be the most powerful woman in Ancient Peru, the Lady of Cao continues to amaze the public and hide assorted secrets 15 years after the discovery of her mummy forced books on the history and role of women in pre-Hispanic civilizations to be rewritten.

“It was a landmark for Peru and for the whole world,” Peruvian archaeologist Regulo Franco – who along with the Wiese Foundation in 2006 revealed the discovery of the Lady of Cao, the first known woman with absolute power in the Moche civilization – told EFE.

For 1,700 years, the remains of this woman with almost semi-divine powers were hidden in a splendid tomb at the Cao Viejo temple within the El Brujo archaeological complex some 60 kilometers (36 miles) from the city of Trujillo on Peru’s northern coast.

She had been buried there with her wealth and jewelry along with five other individuals, including two priests, two bodyguards and a teenage girl, in a room 275 square meters (almost 3,000 square feet) in size decorated with murals presenting the Moche cosmology and in which appear different divinities in the form of various animals.

When her funeral items, including the body itself, were removed, none of the archaeologists at the time were able to guess that the person encased within the surrounding 25 layers of fine cloth, cotton and copper plates was a woman.

“It was a mystery who was inside until months later they gave us the happy news that it was a woman. That was what changed our history. We began to take note that women really did have a fundamental role in the development of the societies of Ancient Peru,” Franco said.

Up to now, however, the reasons are unknown why this woman – who was only about 25 years old and stood 1.48 meters (4 ft. 10 in.) in height at the time she died – evidently occupied the most prominent position in the Moche civilization and dominated political, administrative and religious affairs throughout the Chicama River valley in the 4th and 5th centuries.

In her heyday she could have been a contemporary of other important Moche leaders, including the Lord of Sipan, whose royal tombs – which have been compared to that of Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen for the wealth contained therein – were discovered in 1987 by archaeologist Walter Alva in the Huaca Rajada, 170 km north of Cao Viejo.

“We’re not forgetting that the tombs of the Lord of Sipan were in a mausoleum outside the temple. Here, it’s just the opposite. The tomb is inside the biggest Moche temple complex. Considering that the architectural spaces of this building were sacred, it gives a higher social and political position to this woman,” Franco said.

The body of the mummy was in excellent condition, thanks to the salty seawater in which is was probably bathed and then the cinnabar (mercury sulfide) with which it was anointed during the funerary rites.

In addition, magnificent tattoos adorned the forearms and hands of the Lady of Cao, with figures of serpents, a sign of her religious power as a healer and possibly also as an oracle, and of spiders to highlight her talent as a weaver.

“The Lady of Cao is the most important find made to date at the El Brujo archaeological complex, the one that has been studied most and which has gained the greatest renown,” the general manager of the Wiese Foundation – which is financing the investigation – Ingrid Claudet, told EFE.

“There’s no other funerary context that can compare with it and that makes it difficult to determine with certainty what role she played. There are many questions still remaining and which are going to continue to be investigated over the years,” she added.

On the 15th anniversary of the discovery, the Wiese Foundation this year will publish the most complete book to date about the Lady of Cao with all the studies and research performed so far, including analyses of her tattoos and ornaments as well as theories and hypotheses from 15 experts.

“The role of the Foundation is not to take the side of one of the researchers, because archaeology is not necessarily a discipline of consensus, but rather it promotes more research and contrasting discussion, and that produces knowledge,” Claudet said.

El Brujo also has the unique feature that it’s an enclave that was first occupied 14,000 years ago, “something really rare and with a priceless value,” Claudet said, since “each hectare encloses much knowledge and we’re very far from being able to view it all.”

Since the Wiese Foundation began its investigation of the El Brujo complex in 1990 it has worked only on the biggest temple, where the Lady of Cao was found.

“What we’ve excavated is just 5 percent of … the El Brujo complex. There’s much to learn and discover. There’s enough work to last 1,000 years,” Franco concluded.

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