Tattoos have been around for a while. Literally. When in 2005 the discovery of a pre-Incan woman’s mummy in Peru came to light – the insight gained, yet again on the ancient practice of tattoos, left for some very interesting conversation. Clearly visible in photographs, the tattoos of a serpent, spider and nocturnal animals seen and captured on film are equally as exciting as they are mysterious.
Who exactly was this woman? Why did she have tattoos, and at a time when most sacrificial rituals had females without body adornments to this degree? Thanks to years and years (decades, if not more) of meticulous research and countless hours of archaeological digs, there are some answers.
The mummy has a name. Senora de Cao. And she is no stranger to travel, albeit it took over fifteen centuries for her to “see” a different part of the world than her own. She was displayed in an exhibit, along with 150 more at the Mummies of the World Exhibition in Philadelphia in 2006.
Though for centuries grave robbers and looters have infiltrated the area in northern Peru and come away with almost everything there is to find in the region, miraculously this grave-site was preserved. So much so, that even the white cotton mummification fabric was amazingly intact.
Believed to be a warrior, based on the artifacts kept nearby in her grave as well as the ornate way in which she was dressed before mummification, The Lady of Cao was measured at just under 5 feet tall and was aged at the time of her death in her low to mid 20s. Originating from the northern region of Peru and as a part of the Mochica culture, she is the single most well preserved mummy in virtual pristine condition to have been found by archaeologists.
Among other reasons to believe she was a famed warrior, her tattoos are prevalent on her forearms as well as fingers and also her ankles, a sign of importance. Plus, weapons were found in her grave-site and the prestigious manner in which she was mummified also indicates notoriety. The precious metal bowl that was used to cover her face and also the beaded jewelry adorning her body upon death are all indications of a notable individual of high stature, quite possibly even a princess. Unlike other mummies of her stature, Senora de Cao was analyzed and determined to have been a mother at least once, leading some to label her as “the mummy with more than one career”.
The Moche people are responsible for creating the largest pyramid made of adobe that sits in South America along the same vicinity of where the mummy was found. Though pre-dating the Incan period, the culture has been fairly preserved through pottery and other artifacts, whenever recoverable, such as distinctly woven textiles.
Through years of archaeological digs, quite a few mummies with tattoos have been unearthed. The Smithsonian Institution’s online magazine links a very interesting slideshow featuring several tattooed mummies and some related items as well.