The Ancient Pachacamac Idol Of Peru Reveals Its Mysterious Past

The Pachacamac Idol in all its glory. Sepúlveda et al., 2020 (CC BY 4.0)

The Pachacamac Idol of ancient Peru is now a bare carved wooden statue, however, once upon a time, this sacred Inca idol was vibrantly colored with rare and valuable pigments. 

A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, has carried out chemical analysis on the Pachacamac Idol’s wood and discovered that it was once symbolically colored in red, yellow, and white pigments. Perhaps even more importantly, carbon dating also proves that the idol is authentic, dashing rumors it was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. 

The Pachacamac Idol depicts Pacha Kamaq, the creator god in ancient Andean mythology, whose name means the "creator of the Earth.” The 7.6-foot-long (2.3 meters) idol was discovered in 1938 at the Inca Pachacamac archaeological complex, a vast array of temples, pyramids, and palaces found 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the Peruvian capital Lima. 

There were rumors that the idol was once painted red with the blood of sacrifices. While the research found no evidence of this bloody technique, the pigments were able to provide some fairly surprising insights into the Pre-Columbian history of present-day Peru. 

The red pigment was found to be derived from cinnabar, a brick-red form of mercury(II) sulfide. Curiously, cinnabar is not naturally found in the rocks around the local area. Some of the nearest natural stocks of cinnabar can be found Huancavelica in the central Andes, hundreds of kilometers from where this idol was discovered. This implies that the pigment was sourced from a faraway region and brought to the area through trade or pilgrimage. 

The Pachacamac Idol undergoing chemical analysis and carbon dating. Sepúlveda et al., 2020 (CC BY 4.0)

"Red traces were previously observed and interpreted as blood. 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," Marcela Sepulveda from the University of Tarapacá in Chile told Newsweek.

"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 continued.

In this new study, researchers also used carbon-dating to determine that the wood was cut and likely carved at some point between 760 and 876 CE, meaning it was worshipped for up to 700 hundred years before the Spanish conquest.

As the study notes, many ancient artifacts were stolen or destroyed in the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. There was huge speculation that Hernando Pizarro had destroyed the original Pachacamac Idol during his conquest of the Inca Empire in the Andes. However, based on the recent carbon dating, it’s safe to say that the Pachacamac Idol is the real deal and somehow managed to avoid the conquistadors' wrath.

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