Published: June 2006
Mystery of the Tattooed Mummy
An ornately tattooed 1,600-year-old mummy unearthed in Peru could be a warrior queen of the violent Moche people.
By A. R. Williams
National Geographic Senior Writer

The Moche didn't embalm their dead. Most corpses decayed normally, leaving bare bones as the only proof of lives extinguished. In a very few instances, though, nature and human reverence worked together to preserve the deceased as a mummy. This was the fate of the tattooed woman whose elaborately wrapped remains were discovered last year at a ceremonial site called El Brujo—the Wizard—on the north coast of Peru. Rising to power a thousand years before the Inca, her people created a sophisticated culture now known for its fine ceramics and masterful metalwork.

A recent autopsy revealed that the tattooed woman had borne at least one child and died in her late 20s, but no trace of what killed her was evident. Her untimely demise must have shocked her people, who laid her to rest in full regalia at the peak of a temple where bloody sacrifices were performed (National Geographic, July 2004). Her body was daubed with cinnabar—a red mineral associated with the life force of blood—wrapped in layers of cotton cloth, and entombed in thick courses of adobe. Then the dry climate of the Moche's desert realm desiccated her body.

No other Moche woman like her has ever been found. Based on our preliminary study, we think she was a ruler, says archaeologist Régulo Franco, whose work is supported by Peru's National Institute of Culture and the Augusto N. Wiese Foundation. If so, she may revolutionize ideas about the Moche, whose leaders were believed—until now—to be men.