The Lady of Cao, the powerful queen of the Peruvian Mochica people

“We have to make another discovery like that.” That was what the millionaire Guillermo Wiese told the archaeologist Régulo Franco while he waved in his hand the article published by National Geographic about the discovery in 1987 of the tomb of the Lord of Sipan. Behind the fabulous discovery of the intact tomb of the Mochica ruler Made by Walter Alva in the Huaca Rajada, archaeologists had been dreaming of making another discovery with similar characteristics in the Lambayeque region of northern Peru for almost two decades. And the great discovery came in 2005, when the archaeologist located a burial that contained an intact funerary bundle that had preserved the mummified body of a woman next to her important grave goodsthe feminine equivalent to the Lord of Sipan and who was called the Lady of Cao.

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The dramatic end of the Mochica civilization

The dramatic end of the Mochica civilization

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The jewelry that accompanied the mummy, which included necklaces, diadems, crowns, nose rings, and two sceptres, evidenced that the Lady of Cao was an important Mochica leader of the fourth century AD, a civilization that flourished on the coast of present-day Peru centuries before the rise of the Inca empire. The researchers concluded that her role was equivalent to that of the Lord of Sipán, who ruled the region during the previous century. Until then there was no evidence that a woman could agree to accumulate all the Mochica political and religious power, which entailed being considered a semi-divinity.

Story of a discovery

Since 1990, Régulo Franco was excavating with the support of Wiese at the Huaca Cao Viejo, one of the four “sacred places” (such is the meaning of the Quechua word huaca) that are part of the El Brujo archaeological complex, located 60 kilometers north of Trujillo. Cao Viejo is a ceremonial center belonging to the Mochica culture, a warrior society that between AD 100 and 800 developed a rich and complex civilization along the arid Peruvian Pacific coastal strip.

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An archaeologist restores a mural in the ceremonial courtyard of the Huaca Cao Viejo where the intact tomb of the Lady of Cao was located.

IRA BLOCK / NGS

In those years, Franco had to work accompanied by bodyguards to deal with death threats and continuous sabotage by looters or grave robbers. But that didn’t stop him, and at last he got his reward. In the early days of 2005, Franco’s team was excavating in the northwest courtyard of the ceremonial site. This enclosure stands out for its walls painted with geometric designs and with the representation of a being with feline features and octopus tentacles, surrounded by condors and snakes: Ai Apaec, the main god of the Mochica pantheon, also called “the Decapitator”.

a royal tomb

What most caught the attention of the investigators were certain elements that they detected in the patio and that had been burned: wood, ceramics, copper needles, fish, wooden and cinnabar figurines, as well as vessels, textiles, and silver and silver ornaments. gilt copper. They seemed to be indications that the tomb of an important figure of the Mochica elite was hidden there. And, indeed, the methodical exploration of the archaeologists brought to light the graves of four individuals that flanked what appeared to be a main tomb.

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Masterpieces of the Mochica culture

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Archaeologists concentrated their efforts on this tomb, which had a complex structure. When it was opened on May 15, 2006, a large vessel in the shape of an owl was buried up to its neck. Below was a cane roof supported by a filling of adobe and earth. Below, some rough carob wood, as beams, served to protect the burial. Various vessels had been arranged around it. Finally, on May 15, 2006, to the great emotion of Régulo Franco and his team, an intact funeral bundle was extracted, weighing about one hundred kilos and 1.80 meters long. The bundle had been placed with the head facing south, something common in Mochica burials. To the right of the bundle rested the body of a young woman of about 15 years.

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Archaeologists before the large bundle containing the mummy of the Lady of Cao after its discovery.

IRA BLOCK / NGS

the first surprise

For six months, the scientific team led by Régulo Franco, the textile specialist Arabel Fernández and John Verano, an expert in bioanthropology, dedicated themselves to carefully unwrapping the funeral bundle. This was made up of 26 layers of cloth, among which were found cloaks covered with sheets of gilded copper and remains of cotton. When the archaeologists managed to remove the last layers, they found necklaces, diadems, crowns and 44 gold and silver nose rings, some of them kept in cloth cases. Next to the body there were also two ceremonial wooden scepters or batons lined with gilded copper, 1.75 m high. Inside the bundle, 23 estolics or thrusters had also been arranged to launch darts. When the researchers reached the last layers of cloth that covered the body, they found the biggest surprise of all: the body, which measured 1.45 meters, was perfectly preserved… and it was a woman.

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Researchers cautiously scan the more than 1,600-year-old mummy of the Lady of Cao to learn more about who she was and how she lived.

Photo: Wiese Foundation

The Mochicas did not mummify their dead, but in this case the body was smeared with cinnabar, a red mineral that helped to dry it out and allowed it to be perfectly preserved. The skin on her forearms, ankles, and fingers was covered with tattoos in the shape of spiders and snakes. The Lady of Cao, which was the name that Régulo Franco gave this woman, kept her hair intact, divided into two heavy braids, and the metal bowl that contained the cinnabar with which her body was covered had been placed on her face. The autopsy carried out revealed that Mrs. Ella died at approximately 25 years of age, apparently due to complications from childbirth.

Who was the Lady of Cao?

This woman, who lived around AD 400, some 150 years after the Lord of Sipan, was buried with various symbols of power, including a gold crown decorated with a supernatural wild face and two large ceremonial maces or staffs, as well as like various weapons. Furthermore, some of the individuals buried next to her, such as the young woman next to her, were sacrificed to accompany her mistress to the afterlife.

Under the cloths that covered the body of the Lady of Cao appeared a 1,100 piece gilt copper armor of 200 kilos, two ceremonial sticks and weapons. All this, emblems of power only found before in the tombs of high-ranking male characters such as the Lord of Sipan. But, in addition, the tattoos of spiders and snakes that adorn the body of the Lady would indicate, according to Régulo Franco, that supernatural powers were attributed to himsince these animals are symbols of the fertility of the earth.

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Reconstruction of the appearance of the Lady of Cao with the jewels found next to her mummy.

Photo: Wiese Foundation

All of this makes the discovery of the Lady of Cao something unique in Peruvian archaeology, as she is the first recorded female ruler. Her discovery demolishes many of the theories that had been formulated until then, according to which the Mochica was a warrior and theocratic society, and governed by men. Walter Alva, the discoverer of Sipán, expressed his surprise when he saw that “many of the outfits and symbols of power are found in a woman’s trousseau, since we have considered the Mochicas a patriarchal society governed by men.” According to Régulo Franco, the Lady possibly “was a leading woman in her day” and played an important political and religious role in their society; Among other things, he would have directed the human sacrifices that the Mochica rituals demanded.

As in the case of the Lord of Sipan, the magazine National Geographic also echoed the discovery and in July 2006 published an article titled The mystery of the tattooed mummy. And in 2009 the modern Cao Museum was inaugurated, next to the Cao Viejo huaca, which, among other findings made at the site, houses the grave goods and the remains of the Lady of Cao. In the museum a special room has been arranged so that visitors can marvel with a visit to the Lady and her rich trousseau, magnificent testimonies of the Mochica cultureone of the most complex and sophisticated in America.

The Lady of Cao, the powerful queen of the Peruvian Mochica people