3,000-year-old priest unearthed in Peru highlands

Peruvian archaeologists have uncovered the 3,000-year-old remains of what is believed to be one of the first priests of the ancient north Andean region.

The remains were found at the Pacopampa Archaeological Complex, a site in Peru’s Cajamarca highlands, about 2140m above sea level. While first samples were found nearly a century ago, more recent discoveries have included the tombs of cultural elites and other priestly remains.

Officially dubbed ‘La tumba del Sacerdote de 3000 años antes del presente’ (’The tomb of the Priest from 3,000 years before the present’, or simply the ‘Priest of Pacopampa’), the remains were buried a metre below the surface and correspond to burial period of about 1200 years BCE.

Excavations of the priest of pacopampa
Excavations of the Priest of Pacopampa. Credit: Peru Ministry of Culture.

Surrounding the priest were small, spherical ceramic bowls. Together, the body and items were burned beneath 6 layers of black earth mixed with ash.

Two other decorated bowls which might have been used for ritual body painting for a member of the Pacopampan elite, and two seals – one displaying a human-like face facing east and the other a west-facing jaguar – we also found buried near the tomb’s surface.

The new discovery was buried at least 500 years older than the “Lady of Pacopampa” and the “Priests of the Serpent Jaguar” found by the same project in 2009 and 2015, according to Peru’s Ministry of Culture.

It’s also slightly older than the Priest of the Pututus found at a nearby site in 2022. Pututus – trumpets fashioned from conch shells – were found buried in a similar 1.3m deep circular tomb. This priest was estimated to be in his mid-thirties and was buried with jewellery, gemstones and cuttings of San Pedro cacti, as well as several conch horns.

These discoveries have been made as part of a 20-year archaeological project at the Pacopampa site. The 3000-year-old priest was found by Emeritus Professor Yuji Seki from Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology along with Professor Daniel Morales and Juan Pablo Villanueva of Peru’s Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.

Seki told Reuters the discovery was “peculiar” owing to the unusual positioning of the priest’s body, and the appearance of a tupu (pin) shaped bone, suggesting use in holding a woman’s blanket.

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