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Elegant in Life, Ambiguous in Death: A High-Status Mummy from Northern Coastal Peru

Dumbarton Oaks Fellowship House | Oak Room
December 7, 2023
06:00 PM to 07:00 PM
December 7, 2023 | John Verano shares latest insights on the identity and status of the Lady of Cao from the Moche site of El Brujo


The exceptionally well-preserved Moche mummy known as the Señora de Cao was buried at the El Brujo ceremonial complex in northern coastal Peru around 500 CE. Her unusually rich and diverse funerary assemblage includes elaborate textiles, gold headdresses, and jewelry. Bioanthropological analysis identifies her unequivocally as female. But the objects in her funerary bundle include a mix of what Moche specialists consider classic male warrior regalia (war clubs, spear throwers, headdresses, and nose ornaments) and classic female grave goods (clothing, needles, and weaving tools). While the Lady of Cao was clearly a high-status woman in Moche society, her social position in and relationship to the El Brujo complex and other Moche ceremonial centers is less clear. What do studies of her physical remains and funeral offerings reveal about her identity in life and possible cause of death?

John Verano is a professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and a biological anthropologist who specializes in the study of health, disease, and mortuary practices as revealed through the study of human remains. His primary research area is Andean South America, with a focus on prehistoric populations of coastal and highland Peru. Verano earned his BA in anthropology at Stanford University and his MA and PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles. After seven years at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution), since 1994 he has taught at Tulane University. Verano is co-editor, with Douglas Ubelaker, of Disease and Demography in the Americas (Smithsonian Press, 1992), and with Andrew Scherer, of Embattled Bodies, Embattled Places: War in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Andes (Dumbarton Oaks, 2014). His most recent book is Holes in the Head: The Art and Archaeology of Trepanation in Ancient Peru (Dumbarton Oaks, 2016).

Unwrapping the funeral bundle of the Señora de Cao. Photo by John Verano (2005). Courtesy of the Wiese Foundation.