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Rare Mummy Found With Strange Artifacts, Tattoo in Peru
July 17, 2008 - National Geographic News

by John Roach, for National Geographic News

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 photo & video)

(left) His eyes covered with metal plates and his face painted red—signs of elite status—a mummy of Peru's ancient Chancay culture was unbundled in June 2008.The centuries-old male was found with slingshots and other artifacts and suggests the Chancay—which ruled a coastal valley from about A.D. 1000 to 1500—may have been more powerful than previously thought. (Photograph by Kit Nelson/Tulane University)

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).

Nelson isn't sure what the cotton balls signify, calling them "strange things we never expected."

According to Guillermo Cock, a Peruvian archaeologist and expert on Andean cultures, cotton yarn was sometimes placed in burials as a sign the person was a weaver, though Cock has never seen balls of raw cotton in a burial.

The mummy—nicknamed "Kiko Rontoy" by the scientists—held an empty bag and loop of yarn in his right hand (photo), and corncobs and kernels were found throughout the layers.

Corn was a "very valuable resource" used for food and to make chicha, a type of beer, said Cock, who was not involved in the Rontoy project.

That corn was offered in such abundance in this burial, he noted, is a sign of Kiko Rontoy's high social status, though some amount of corn is almost always found at Chancay burials.

Why the Chancay offered corn—and to whom—is unknown, said project co-leader Nelson.

"We don't have any idea what the pantheon of gods was for the Chancay," she said.

Loincloth, Tattoos, Slingshots

The mummy was dressed in two tunics and a loincloth. Slingshots were found around his knees and waist.

Most interesting, according to Nelson, was a foot-long (30-centimeter-long) wooden figurine dressed just like the mummy and positioned next to his head. Again, further study is required to determine the artifact's significance, she said.

On the mummy's right knee is a black tattoo—a line that follows the angle of the joint (photo). Tattoos are another sign of elite status, according to Cock, whose work has been funded in part by the National Geographic Expeditions Council.

(Related: "Mummy of Tattooed Woman Discovered in Peru Pyramid" [May 16, 2006].)

The researchers found the mummy's face covered in several layers of the loosely woven, gauzy material.

Little offerings were in each layer—a piece of silver, for example. He wore a necklace of silver beads on a cotton string around his neck.

Red paint made with mercury sulfide covers the mummy's well-preserved face (photo)—an adornment associated with the burials of high-ranking individuals. Hand-pounded pieces of copper and silver metal cover each eye, and another is placed between his teeth (photo).

Organs Removed

The mummy's bowels appear to have been removed via the anus, which shows signs of having been enlarged, Nelson said. Disembowelment, which was also practiced by ancient Egyptians, would have aided in the preservation of the body, she noted.

This may be the only known instance of preburial disembowelment in an Andean mummy after the Chinchorro culture, which has yielded disemboweled mummies thousands of years older than Kiko Rontoy, Cock said.

The tightly wrapped textiles—plus a 4- to 6-inch (10- to 15-centimieter) layer of raw cotton—also helped arrest the decay, Nelson said.

She suspects that other preservation measures were also employed but is awaiting lab results before commenting further.

Because the metal plates, red paint, tattoo, abundant offerings of corn, and intentional mummification are indications of wealth, Nelson concludes the mummy was "a person of some kind of status." But there was nothing in the bundle itself to clearly suggest he was a religious or political leader.

"We know he's elite—he had access to metals, he was buried in an important place. But beyond that, I'm not sure," she said.

Cock agrees the artifacts, especially the metal faceplates, are indications of status.

"That individual is somebody from the upper class—not necessarily a high-ranking lord, but a sort of lord within his society," he said.

As for how Kiko Rontoy died, there is no evidence yet of broken bones or severe lacerations, project co-leader Nelson said. He may have had an infection, said Nelson, who is awaiting results from a specialist.

Lucky Strike

Nelson and Ruiz Estrada discovered the Kiko Rontoy mummy bundle during a series of spot excavations in 2007 to collect ceramic data at five archaeological sites along the final 40 miles (65 kilometers) of the Huaura River. The team dug just a few 3.3-foot-by-3.3-foot (1-meter-by-1-meter) pits at each site.

The sites are in danger from looting and threatened by the region's fast-expanding sugarcane industry. Nelson, a pottery specialist, was in the area with the humbler hope of finding ceramic remains to help secure better dates for the Chancay's occupation of the valley.

Rontoy (photo) sits where the river valley begins to fan out toward the ocean and is today surrounded by a sea of agricultural fields.

When occupied by the Chancay, the city was also a thriving agricultural community, Nelson said, adding that cotton was likely a major crop.

The size of the farm town during its heyday is unknown, because researchers don't know how many structures have since been destroyed. Nor do they know how many people lived in each structure.

The mummy was discovered beneath the ground floor of a room within an adobe compound (photo)—one of the many such compounds still partially intact.

No other prehistoric mummies were found in Kiko Rontoy's specially built tomb. But an 1800s burial was found at the top of the dig site, Nelson said.

Farther down, "we landed right on top of the mummy bundle," Nelson said.

The discovery came as a surprise, since most pre-Inca dead were buried in cemeteries. Even so, most pre-Inca compounds contain individual burials for "special people," said Cock, the Lima-based archaeologist.

The mummy bundle lay on a bed of corn offerings and was positioned below three empty niches carved into the adobe walls. What offerings might have been placed in those niches, however, is unknown, project co-leader Nelson said.

Regional Control

The presence of elites in a midsize settlement such as Rontoy, Nelson noted, helps to paint a picture of the Chancay as a culture that had "substantial regional control" on the north-central coast of Peru during the period known as the Late Intermediate—about A.D. 1000 to 1476.

At the same time as the Chancay exerted control and influence over the Huaura Valley region, the better known, powerful Chimor Empire ruled the coastal regions to the north and controlled a complex irrigation system.

The Chimor were once thought to have ruled the entire coast down to the what is now Lima. But the emerging picture suggests the Chancay remained independent from the Chimor, Cock said.

The Chimor "didn't really conquer the area of the Chancay," he said. "They lived with the Chancay, they traded with the Chancay, there was influence in both directions—but they didn't really dominate the Chancay."

Nelson's team's evidence agrees with Cock's idea that the Chancay were independent. The team has found no sign of the Chimor at any of the five Huaura Valley sites they have examined.

But that freedom wasn't to last.

When the Inca reached the Peruvian coast in 1476, they conquered both the Chimor and Chancay, Cock said. Elites of both cultures, however, likely continued to rule, albeit as Inca deputies.

"Most of these large chiefdoms enter into a sort of alliance with the Inca. They exchanged women and became relatives and went under the rule of the Inca," Cock said. "They were too powerful to resist."