Scientists have reconstructed the face of a wealthy pre-Columbian noblewoman buried about 1,200 years ago in Peru.
The face of an ancient Andean queen [Image by Oscar Nilsson]
The woman, known as the Huarmey Queen, was at least 60 years old when she died. She was among 58 noblewomen, four of them queens or princesses, buried at the same site. All the noblewomen belonged to the Wari culture, which thrived and ruled the region before the Incas came into power.
The Huarmey Queen likely enjoyed a high stature in life, as indicated by the splendor she was buried in. Her body had its own burial chamber, surrounded by riches like silver goblets, ceremonial copper weapons, and golden ear ornaments. Analysis of the skeleton revealed that the Huarmey Queen spent much of her life sitting down, though her upper body showed signs of extensive physical exertion. These are strong indications that the Huarmey Queen had been a prolific weaver in life.
Gold and silver ear ornaments surrounded the queen's remains. [Photo by Robert Clark]
Her occupation as a weaver only solidified the theory that she was a high-ranking noblewoman when she was alive. In Wari culture, like other cultures in the Andes at the time, woven textiles were worth more than silver and gold, because weaving took so much time, effort, and skill. The Huarmey Queen was even buried with weaving tools made out of gold. Miraculously, her burial site—called El Castillo de Huarmey—was overlooked by looters and grave robbers.
Further evidence of the Huarmey Queen’s high social stature lay in her teeth—more specifically, the ones that are missing. The fact that some of her teeth were missing indicated that she drank chicha on the regular, a sugary alcoholic drink, which only Wari nobles were permitted to drink.
The queen's skull [Photo by Robert Clark]
Milosz Giersz and Roberto Pimentel Nita, the archaeologists who found the Huarmey Queen’s remains, wanted to know more about this ancient noblewoman’s life. This, apparently, included having an idea of what she looked like in life. Thus, Giersz and Nita asked Oscar Nilsson, another archaeologist who specializes in reconstructions, for help.
Nilsson’s reconstruction was remarkable not only because of its quality, but also because of the process that went into it. Similar reconstructions are usually done almost entirely with computers, but Nilsson did things a little differently. He printed out a 3D model of the Huarmey Queen’s skull, then he added on her facial features by hand.
The final reconstruction of the queen's face [Photo by Oscar Nilsson]
Information from chemical data showed that the Huarmey Queen spent her life drinking the water in the region. Because of this, Nilsson used photos of indigenous Andes living near El Castillo de Huarmey for reference in reconstructing the Huarmey Queen’s face. Gilesz even bought a wig made of the hair of elderly Andean woman, which Nilsson used as the reconstruction’s hair. Nilsson also relied on datasets as well as the skull’s structure to figure out the thickness of the face’s flesh and muscle.
It took Nilsson a total of 220 hours of work to build a finely detailed reconstruction of this ancient queen’s face. Those 220 hours, it seems, were worth it.
“When I first saw the reconstruction, I saw some of my indigenous friends from Huarmey in this face,” says Giersz. “Her genes are still in the place.”
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