LIMA – Peruvians’ view of their remote ancestors has taken on a new immediacy thanks to the innovative reconstruction of the face of an upper class woman buried some 3,700 years ago.
“She has a great resemblance to a woman of today,” archaeologist Dayanna Carbonel told EFE, referring to the “Lady of El Paraiso,” whose tomb was discovered in 2016.
Carbonel leads the team carrying out excavations at the vast El Paraiso complex, home to the oldest known temples on the central coast of what is now Peru.
The bust, with its long face, prominent nose and cheekbones, small eyes and narrow mouth, is on display at Lima’s Andres Del Castillo Mineral Museum, which financed the reconstruction and gave EFE an exclusive first look at the result of nearly two years’ work.
Anthropometric analysis of the skeletal remains provided a basis for determining the dimensions and shape of the face of the Lady of El Paraiso, who stood just 1.5 meters (4-foot-9) tall and was between the ages of 20 and 25 at her death.
At that point, Carbonel enlisted the help of artist Teo Ugarte, who used clay and plaster to fill in the skull with tissue and muscles before completing the surface with fiberglass.
“The intention was not to exaggerate the features because we wanted to achieve the best likeness,” Carbonel said. “There is a certain margin of error because we will never know with exactitude the thickness of the laps, the length of the nose or the shape of the ears, but we have come close.”
This is not the first reconstruction undertaken on a powerful woman from Peru’s past.
Three years ago, a consortium of private companies presented a replica of the mummified body of the Lady of Cao, believed to have ruled northern Peru 1,700 years ago. A subsequent project involved the remains of a priestess entombed at the Chornancap site as early as the 14th century.
But the Lady of El Paraiso dates from two millennia earlier than the Lady of Cao.
“Lately, we are discovering again and again that women had an important role, probably associated with ritual acts,” Carbonel said.
The Lady of El Paraiso’s final resting place was the first of the 11 tombs found to date at the site, which lies where the Chillon River flows into the Pacific Ocean.
Among the circumstances attesting to her elevated status was the location of the tomb in a building near El Paraiso’s main temple, as well as the prestigious items buried with her.
“The relevance of this discovery is that we are talking about a woman who possibly had an important symbolic connection with the rites that were practiced inside the buildings of El Paraiso,” Carbonel said.
“We have not been able to determine the cause of her death. It continues to be a mystery, but the remains have been able to tell us a little about her life,” the archaeologist said.
The presence of a bone injury in one of her forearms indicates the Lady of El Paraiso was a weaver, while the condition of the teeth show she ate a diet of seafood, yucca, maize and beans.
Work at El Paraiso resumed in October after a months-long interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the project is set to end in February unless the Culture Ministry decides to extend the funding.
“There is still much to excavate, discover and analyze. We’ve just been able to discover a small part. The ideal is that these projects of great magnitude are maintained and there is a constant budget for this work,” Carbonel said.
“We don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “We hope a commitment exists on the part of the Culture Ministry together with other institutions to stop these projects from coming to nothing and have a continuity in protection of the heritage.”
El Paraiso, located in metropolitan Lima, has already suffered from incursions. In 2012, three years before the current project began, one of the buildings was all but destroyed and another was badly damaged.
“This can happen again,” Carbonel warned.