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GeographicaWho Knew?

Research and Exploration

Shaman or Sacrifice?

She was 25 to 30 years old, possibly a mother, and buried like no one else of her place and time—Peru's arid coast some 13 centuries ago.

Last year, astonished excavators found her elaborate fardo, or mummy bundle, at Cerrillos, a religious center of the Paracas culture, which predates the Inca by 1,400 years. Until this find, the field team working with Mercedes Delgado and under NGS grantee Dwight Wallace (who discovered the site in 1958 and still oversees it) had been turning up mainly pottery sherds and textile fragments in the ruins of a terraced pyramid. But as the 2002 season ended, excavators clearing dirt near the top of the structure unearthed an unusual feathered textile unlike any known from the Paracas period. It formed two wings flanking a mask, below which lay what looked like the body of a huge bird. X-rays showed that the bundle held the bones of a woman.

Another surprise lay in store. The bundle dated from a time nearly 900 years after Cerrillos had been abandoned, suggesting that the burial was carried out by people of the much later Nasca culture, whose villages surrounded the ancient site. Wallace and Delgado are struggling to understand the find. "We have absolutely nothing like this," says Wallace.

The burial—done in two stages—defied custom. Instead of dressing the young woman in her best clothes and letting the air naturally mummify her remains, those who prepared her body removed its clothes, bent it into a fetal position, wrapped it in plain cloth, and staked it outside. Beetles ate the flesh from her bones. Her skeleton was later wrapped in more cloth, surrounded by armfuls of plants—grasses, herbs, maize, peanuts, gourds, cotton, beans, coca—and sewed into a bundle. Carried to Cerrillos, presumably a sacred ancestral site, the bundle was buried standing up and facing south. Inside, the young woman's skull had been turned to look east toward the sun, "giving her the chance for rebirth," says Delgado.

Wallace feels that the parrot-like fardo was displayed before burial as an idol—a "feathered sky goddess"—and that the skeleton and plants were meant as offerings. But who was the woman and how did she die? Workers at Cerrillos dubbed the bundle the winged shamana, or female healer, a title the contents seem to suggest. Given the elaborate burial, she was obviously a person of status. Yet she was buried without riches or any possessions save a headband. "She wasn't wealthy but was important," says Delgado, "so special she was buried in a magical place."

Delgado believes the woman may have been sacrificed, as was common in ancient Andean cultures. Yet the bones show no evidence of a ritual killing. Wallace thinks it more likely she died in an accident, perhaps a drowning, which would have left no mark and prevented mummification. The very uniqueness of her burial makes it impossible to explain—for now.

—Karen E. Lange

Web Links

Mummy bundles of Puruchoco
Look through the layers of a mummy bundle and watch a documentary about the excavations at Puruchoco, an Inca cemetery in Peru.

California Institute for Peruvian Studies
Read about some of the projects—including Dwight Wallace's work at Cerrillos—supported in part by this institute dedicated to the research of Peruvian culture.

Cultural Expeditions: Ancient Peruvian Textiles
Read some tidbits on Peruvian textiles and mummy bundles and learn how to plan your own cultural expedition to Peru.

Free World Map

"Thousands of Inca Mummies Found," CBS, April 17, 2002. Available online at

Cock, Guillermo. "Inca Rescue," National Geographic  (May 2002), 78-91.

Keatinge, Richard, ed. Peruvian Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Reinhard, Johan. "Sharp eyes of science probe the mummies of Peru," National Geographic  (January 1997), 36-43.


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