Secrets of 'Iconic' Ancient Peruvian Artifact Unravelled by Scientists

Researchers have uncovered new insights into an "iconic and unique masterpiece" of ancient Peruvian archaeology.

The so-called Pachacamac Idol is a wooden statue believed to represent one of the principal deities in Inca culture. It was discovered in 1938 at the Pachacamac archaeological complex located around 20 miles south of the Peruvian capital, Lima.

"Several myths and ethnohistoric sources from the 16th century onward inform about the power and characteristics of the Pachacamac divinity," Marcela Sepulveda, from the University of Tarapacá in Chile, told Newsweek.

"One of them indicated that he was the Earth Creator, the earthquake deity, among other roles. He was considered an oracle and the Inca emperor came to consult it at Pachacamac monumental center of pilgrimage. It occupied a similar place to the Viracocha divinity. Both are known as son of the Sun, the principal deity of the Inca empire," she said.

For a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, Sepulveda and colleagues took a wood sample from the idol and chemically analyzed it, casting new light on its history.

Carbon dating revealed that the statue was likely carved between 760 and 876 A.D., indicating that the statue was worshipped for nearly 700 years before the Spanish conquest of the region in 1533.

The researchers say they can now confirm the idol is ancient and that it has undergone several restorations, clearing up questions over its originality and age.

Furthermore, the researchers found several traces of color pigments—red, yellow and white—indicating that the idol was symbolically painted.

"[This] adds a new material dimension to Andean cult practices performed at Pachacamac, a major place of pilgrimage for the Inca and other Andean cultural tradition," Sepulveda said.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that the red pigment was a material known as cinnabar, which is not found in the local region.

"Red traces were previously observed and interpreted as blood," Sepulveda said. "So, we were expecting to find some color traces. When we began our study we were surprised to observe not only red traces but also yellow and white ones."

Pachacamac Idol
The wooden statue of the Pachacamac Idol. Sepúlveda et al, 2020

"Then we were surprised to identify the use of cinnabar mineral as this kind of pigment is scarce and normally restricted to specific uses (rituals, funerary) and for certain social categories (elites or warriors). Its accessibility was certainly controlled," she said. "We demonstrated the economic and political implications of the use of specific mineral the cinnabar in this specific context."

The carbon dating of the statue indicates that it was made by the Wari culture, which developed in what is now the Peruvian Andes and flourished between 500-1000 A.D.—before the emergence of the Inca Empire

"Their principal capital city was Wari, located near to the city of Ayacucho," Sepulveda said. "They dominated a vast territory including the highlands and coast of current Peru. They constructed several administrative centers in different regions to control them but also to establish social relations with other groups and cultural traditions politically dominated by them. They were contemporaries of the Tiwanaku culture, developed in the south of Titicaca Lake."

"The Pachacamac cult was institutionalized by the Incas who modified the monumental site and converted it in a very important center of pilgrimage. People from all the Andean regions came to visit and to deliver offerings," she said.