A new analysis
suggests the Pachacamac Idol, once thought destroyed, is probably
olderand less bloodythan once believed
Pachacamac Idol, a 1200-year-old wooden carving that held
spiritual significance to the Inca (Sepúlveda et al.,
PLOS ONE, 2020)
As the year 1533 drew to a close, Spanish conquistador Hernando
Pizarro departed Peru, full to bursting with stories of the
wonders he had seen. The Inca Empire, he explained to his comrades
and superiors, had readily succumbed to the four Pizarro
brothers and their forces. Along the way, the Spaniards had
attacked the locals, imprisoned their leaders, looted Inca valuables
and desecrated places of worship.
One sacred casualty, Pizarro boasted, was an 8-foot-tall wooden
idol, intricately carved with human figures and animals, once housed
in the Painted Temple near what is now Lima. The Inca revered the
idol, which represented one of their most important deities, as
an oracle. But Pizarro quickly linked the artifact to apparent "devil"
worship and ordered
his followers to "undo the vault where the idol was and break
him in front of everyone."
Shortly after, Western records of the artifact dwindled, and the
so-called Pachacamac Idol was presumed destroyed, as Pizarro had
chemically analyzed wood samples of the Pachacamac Idol to
determine its origins. (Sepúlveda et al., PLOS ONE,
Now, new research suggests the idol actually survived the Spanish
conquestand has been in the hands of archaeologists for the
past 82 years, reports Laura Geggel for Live
Science. Writing in a study published yesterday in the journal
ONE, a team of researchers presents evidence suggesting
that a Peruvian artifact first unearthed in 1938 is the original
idol, not a later forgery as some suspected.
Scientists led by Marcela Sepúlveda, an archaeologist at
the University of Tarapacá in Chile, decided to settle the
debate once and for all. After taking a small sample of wood from
the idol, she and her colleagues chemically analyzed it. Then, they
stumbled across their first surprise: The material dated to roughly
800 A.D., during the time of the pre-Inca Wari people and a good
700 years before Pizarro's arrival.
Significant effort must have gone into preserving and caring for
the idol over the course of the centuries, even as it presumably
changed hands, according to Aristos Georgiou of Newsweek.
spending centuries underground, the Pachacamac Idol is still
coated in flecks of pigment, including red cinnabar (red arrows).
(Marcela Sepulveda/Rommel Angeles/Museo de sitio Pachacamac)
A Wari influence in the idol's creation might also explain its
unusual coloringa combination of reds, whites and yellows,
the researchers found. The rustier hues were the result of cinnabar,
a mercury-based pigment found on other Wari artifacts. Artists likely
had to travel to secure the pigment, underscoring just how valuable
the idol was to its creators, says Patrick Ryan Williams, an anthropologist
at Chicago's Field Museum who wasn't involved in the study, to Geggel.
The discovery of cinnabar also helps put another false rumor to
rest: that the idol's red hues were traces of blood, Sepúlveda
That the idol's coloring survived this long is perhaps another
testament to its preservation. Certainly the Wari considered the
task well worth the effort: As Sepúlveda explains, the idol
may have represented the creator of the Eartha deity of so
much importance that even the Inca emperor once paid the Painted
Temple a visit.
Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story
Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and
Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as
a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's
2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.