1700 Year Old Peruvian Priestess: Did Women Rule Peru?


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In the last few years, archaeological finds coming out of Peru are shedding new light on a South American contemporary civilization that existed simultaneously as the Mayans. The most recent discovery, reported on by the AFP, is of another pre-Hispanic priestess of possible royal descent, making this the eighth such discovery in over 20 years.

The skeleton was found at the San José de Moro site, an excavation that has been taking place since 1991, and evidence is piling up that the location was used between 600 and 850 AD as a ceremonial center and a destination for Moche pilgrims. The area was apparently overseen by the priestess-queens found to be buried there, and these women would have been a strong force in both political and religious arenas.

The priestess-queen's tomb was ornate, indeed. The description of the tomb indicates the body rested on a platform and was gently adorned with a local stone necklace, and next to her sat a tall silver goblet that regularly appears in Moche art scenes about human sacrifice. The silver goblet is the archaeologists' best clue to who she was, as the Moche would not be placed in the tomb of someone who was a commoner or a soldier; the woman's belongings are intended to symbolize the role she played in the realm of the living. A copper funerary mask was on the floor after probably having sat on top of the coffin, which had long since decayed but left the typical clues of Moche coffin carving like patterns of waves and steps.

Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, a recipient of National Geographic's Explorers grant and a professor of archaeology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, said "twenty-five years ago we thought that power was monopolized by male warrior-priests," a viewpoint supported by the context of archaeological finds like the Lord of Sipan, who ruled over a much earlier period in Moche history. The fact that Moche tombs regularly included the elites from both sexes is indicative of men and women sharing power, proving previous conclusions on the Moche's rigid and highly-centralized culture are incorrect.

You can read the National Geographic's piece on the discovery here.

Main image courtesy Luis Jaime Castillo Butters.