Peru’s Lady of Cao mummy died during childbirth


By Emily Finn

The restoration of the Lady of Cao mummy. (Photo: La República)

A recent study suggests that the Lady of Cao, a spectacularly well-preserved mummy found in northern Peru in 2006, died of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The warrior woman and leader, whose 1,600-year-old remains are now housed at El Brujo Archaeological Complex in La Libertad, is believed to have suffered from eclampsia, a condition that causes seizures during pregnancy.

According to Jordi Esteban Farre, a Spanish forensic doctor conducting research on the mummy, evidence from her arms and the tissue on her hands suggests that she withstood intense seizures. He further explained that the position in which she was found—with her wrists in perfect condition, even though her arms were oddly positioned—has a pathological significance, pointing to death by convulsion.

Though he recognizes that it is difficult to prove, Esteban Farre cites extensive evidence supporting his hypothesis. Eclampsia causes not only seizures, but also respiratory and circulatory problems in pregnant women. Although it is a relatively rare complication, even today an estimated 50,000 women die of eclampsia annually.

So, the Lady of Cao was pregnant—probably in her third trimester, judging by the stretch marks on her abdomen—and died during complications at birth. It is unclear if she successfully delivered or if the complications caused a stillbirth. Esteban Farre suggests that she died approximately 48 hours after the onset of labor, since her pelvic muscles and ligaments are stretched, as they would be after delivery.

La Señora de Cao

See this travel article for an interview with Régulo Franco, head of the project at El Brujo, about the significance of the Lady of Cao’s discovery and how tourists can enjoy a visit to the ruins and museum.

The Lady of Cao, who was likely between 20 and 25 at the time of her death, was a ruler of the Mochica people, who occupied a long, thin stretch of territory along the northern coast of Peru. She is also called the “Tattooed Mummy” because of the web of still-visible tattoos on her arms depicting spiders and snakes, which are believed to have symbolized fertility and her powers as a prophet. She was found buried with jewelry and weapons made of precious metals and gemstones, and her body embalmed with mercury sulfate, which preserved her remains to a remarkable degree. Archaeologists have also uncovered Mochica weavings and ceramics in the area, some of which date back 5,000 years.

Archaeological director of the El Brujo complex Régulo Franco stated that Esteban Farre has the institution’s support to continue investigating the details of the Lady of Cao’s death. He added that full results of Esteban Farre’s study would be published soon.