Women ran things in ancient Peru, a new study argues

Women in ancient Peru, far from being marginalized and invisible, were political and economic decision-makers, according to a new study that challenges many traditional takes on the country’s history.

Historian Maritza Villavicencio sets out the findings that run counter to previous hypotheses that high-ranking pre-Columbian women in Peru were mere “priestesses” in Mujer, poder y alimentacion en el antiguo Peru (Woman, power and food in ancient Peru).

Instead, she asserts, they were monarchs.

The book, published by San Martin de Porres University, is the result of the 10 years of research.

“Women were invisible in history, and what my book does is propose restoring the memory of the real life of these women. That’s why this more than just a claim,” Villavicencio told AFP.


In the book Villavicencio argues that women exercised political power in their communities in different areas of pre-Hispanic Peru.

“Women were categorized as priestesses to lower their status — not as a person who had power to participate in their people’s political, economic and social activities, able to decide and make alliances with make rulers,” she said.

“There is a discriminatory interpretation by researchers regarding women in ancient Peru” which “obscures the power of these women,” she says.

Shattering ‘male-centric’ history

The first mummy of a high-status woman was discovered in northern Peru in 1992, in an archeological site in San Jose del Moro, home to the people of the Late Sican period who lived there between the 12th and 14th centuries.

The figure had long been considered a high priestess, though she was buried wearing the clothes of a ruler, along with the remains of eight elite women and a headdress. From 2013, she started being called the Senora (Lady) of Chornancap, the historian said.

In 1987, archaeologists discovered what came to be known as the Lord of Sipan, near the modern day city of Trujillo.

“Nobody called him a ‘priest.’ Everybody called him a great lord, the Moche monarch, and a museum was built for him,” Villavicencio said.

Another find, of the Lady of Cao, who governed in the 4th century during the Moche culture, was also originally labelled a priestess, despite being buried with a scepter similar to that found at the Lord of Sipan’s tomb.

After further study, the Lady of Cao was considered a ruler, and today she has a museum in her honor.

“There is a biased view when it comes to women, a male-centric vision that puts men at the center of everything in Peru’s history,” Villavicencio said.

Traditional books of Peruvian history said that women were absent when governing decisions were made, but her research shows the opposite, she said.

Serpent tattoos

Villavicencio said lineage was a principal criterion for assuming power.

There were also four areas in which power was attributed to individuals: miracle-working, reproduction, textile-making, and supplying food.

Women’s “power to heal, to summon the weather through knowledge, to show the path of life and death made them leaders,” she affirmed.

An important symbol was the tattoo. “For example, the Lady of Cao had serpents tattooed on her arm, which signified she able to summon water from the rivers and possibly predict the weather.”

There are also sanctuaries in which the remains of elite women have been discovered, such as at a site in the Lima neighborhood of Miraflores called Pucllana, or a nearby site in San Isidro.

The San Isidro site, Huallamarca, in 1958 yielded funeral remains of around 100 people, 73 of whom were elite-level women, among the Lady of the Long Hair (la Dama de los Cabellos Largos). The buried remains of men were also found, but they were of lower rank.

Archeologists have also dug up much evidence of textile making. Villavicencio said that cloth mantles were believed to confer power to women in ancient Peru.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

It’s our diplomatic duty to bring South Africans back home — Dirco

South Africans stuck abroad are told to be patient while the government is negotiating with different countries and working on ways to bring them back home

South Africans stuck in Peru lockdown told to ‘hang in there’

Two women who travelled to South America for a friend’s wedding were told by the South African government to wait until Peru’s state of emergency ends. Now they could be coming home

Rare Gabon burial cave reveals clues to African history

There are 30 skeletons in the Iroungou cave, and carbon dating has shown they are from the 14th century. It is only the second cave burial site to be unearthed on the continent

‘Christ of Theft’ statue poses dilemma for Peru

The 37-metre acrylic and concrete structure, which cost $800 000, is viewed by some as a symbol of corruption

Trump pays in messiah money

The Trump coin, at least, echoes another element of the BIN story about the Pilgrim’s Road. It mentions some coins found during the excavations

Brazil sends troops after clashes at Venezuela border

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed the border into Brazil over the past three years as they seek to escape the crisis in their country
Advertising

New education policy on gender violence released

Universities and other higher education institutions have to develop ways of preventing or dealing with rape and other damaging behaviour

Cambridge Food Jozini: Pandemic or not, the price-gouging continues

The Competition Commission has fined Cambridge Food Jozini for hiking the price of its maize meal during April

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday