Rare Mummy Found With Strange Artifacts, Tattoo in Peru

July 17, 2008

Disemboweled and decorated with scarlet paint, metal eye plates, and a tattoo, an exquisitely preserved, thousand-year-old mummy has been discovered in Peru. (See photos.)

As anthropologists gingerly removed the layers of ancient textiles swaddling the thirtysomething elite male last month at a Lima lab, offerings both strange and familiar came to light—slingshots, corn, a figurine in identical dress.

Taken together, the artifacts, the mummy, and the excavation site suggest that the mysterious, little-studied Chancay civilization held a surprisingly tight grip on the fertile north-central Pacific coast of Peru during the culture's heyday, between A.D. 1000 and 1500, when it finally fell to the unstoppable Inca Empire, experts say.

Until now most Chancay remains have come from sites that had been looted or bulldozed for expanding farms, making the specimens' context and origins uncertain.

That spotty record makes the discovery of the new mummy in an untouched, corncob-lined tomb in the Chancay farming village of Rontoy a breakthrough.

"We know exactly where [this mummy] is from, and we are finding things that we always thought were Chancay. We actually have a male [wearing] what we've always called male tunics," Tulane University anthropologist Kit Nelson said.

"All of these things come together so we can say, in fact, yes this is Chancay, [and] this is what it looks like," said Nelson, who, along with Arturo Ruíz Estrada of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima received funding for the project from the Committee for Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society (which owns National Geographic News).

"Strange Things We Never Expected"

Nelson and her colleagues spent several weeks slowly unbundling the mummy, which was wrapped in layers of finely woven textiles and a gauze-like material.

Embedded in several layers were offerings that helped to paint a more complete—but still mysterious—picture of the Chancay.

In an upper layer, for example, the scientists found a lone ball of white raw cotton on the left and right side of the mummy. Several layers closer to the body, the team found two more balls of cotton another ball of cotton—a white one on one side of the body, a brown one on the other (photo).

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