Mummy, What Lovely Tattoos You've Got Mummy, What Lovely Tattoos You've Got; Warrior Queen or Ritual Sacrifice, the Amazing Secret Unearthed in Peru

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Byline: JONATHAN FOREMAN

SHE may be the Tutankhamun of the Andes. Certainly, this almost perfectly preserved body of a woman - buried around 450 AD in Northern Peru - is the first great archaeological discovery of the 21st century.

When scientists unpeeled the hundreds of yards of ancient cotton wrapped around her they found her skin was covered in tattoos.

Strings of precious stones lay around her neck. Gold nose ornaments attired her face.

Between the layers of cotton were giant war clubs and spears.

And next to her body was the skeleton of a teenage girl. The plant fibre rope that strangled the child was still around her neck.

The girl was almost certainly a servant of some kind. But who was the mummified woman? A priestess, a princess, a royal sacrifice?

She was clearly a woman of some status - the archaeologists could tell that just from the size of the mummy itself.

The American and Peruvian teams who found her have spent more than a decade exploring the pyramid complex of El Brujo, near the Peruvian coastal town of Trujillo.

The tattooed mummy's tomb was opened last summer, but it has taken many months to unwrap her without causing damage.

The ancient civilisation at El Brujo were called the Moche, and like so many pre-Christopher Columbus peoples, were enthusiastic practitioners of human sacrifice.

The woman is thought to be the first female Moche leader ever discovered - debunking the theory that the culture was ruled only by men. One theory suggests she may have died in childbirth, aged about 25.

The Moche religion is known to have featured a bulging-eyed figure called 'the Decapitator.' Though sometimes represented as a snake, a winged creature or a sea monster, it is invariably shown with one hand holding a severed head by the hair and the other grasping a knife.

Elaborate paintings on Moche pottery show ornately dressed warrior priests slitting throats, drinking blood and committing sexual acts on their victims.

Scientists at first believed the paintings were symbolic - then they discovered sites filled with human skeletons, all showing signs of dismemberment, decapitation and ritual killing.

There is little doubt that human sacrifice was part of Moche religion. It involved the consumption of human blood by the 'Lord of Sipan' - the political, military and religious ruler of the Moche.

Archaeologists speculate that the Moche believed that all this slaughter and cannibalism was intended to appease the Decapitator. …