Ancient Gold Burial Mask Found to Be Painted With Human Blood

The use of human blood may have allowed an ancient society's elite to maintain their status as cosmically privileged deities even in the afterlife, researchers say.
Ancient Gold Burial Mask Found to Be Painted With Human Blood
Image: Pires, Carvalho et. al. 

A 1,000-year-old gold burial mask excavated in Peru is covered with paint containing human blood, according to new research.

In the 1990s, archaeologists uncovered an ancient and mysterious burial ritual in Peru: in the center of the chamber was a man, seated with his upside-down skeleton painted red along with the gold mask that adorned his detached skull. Scientists initially attributed the paint's red pigment to cinnabar, but a new analysis has revealed another key ingredient: human blood. 


The skeleton belonged to a 40-to-50 year old man who was an elite member of Sicán society, which predated the Incas and existed between the ninth and 14th centuries in Peru. Scientists from the University of Oxford and Southern Illinois University were curious as to what the Sicán people used as binder in the paint that kept it attached to the gold mask for a millennium. 

According to the study, published recently in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Proteome Research, the scientists took a small sample of the paint and initial analyses revealed the presence of proteins. After digging down to find out just what those proteins were, the team discovered that they were proteins from human blood as well as egg whites from an unspecified bird. 

The researchers say that this mix of paint including human blood may have had special significance to the Sicán people. In fact, it could be part of a plot by that society’s wealthy elite to paint themselves as essentially celestial deities.

In an email, study co-author Luciana da Costa Carvalho explained that fellow co-author and director of the Sicán Archaeology Project Izumi Shimada believes that the ancient culture thought that blood represented one’s life force. In addition, there are Spanish Colonial documents describing pre-Hispanic myths that said societal elites were totally different from commoners, and were born from stars or eggs.

“Those myths also speak of how these elites upon death transform into the mythical deities or powerful ancestors who should be worshipped,” Carvalho wrote. “It is quite likely that Sicán elites (as with elites in many other ancient cultures) promulgated a vision/myth that distinguished them from the rest of the society and thus legitimized their power, wealth, etc. Thus, we may think of the use of human blood as a binder is an extension of the religious dogma that the Sicán elite promulgated so that they could attain the transformation to become deified ancestors.” 

“We can only speculate but it does seem that privileged elites commonly seek to retain, if not amplify, their power, prestige and wealth,” Carvalho continued. “Izumi thinks that the use of human blood by the Sicáns suggests their desire for immortality.” 

Using the techniques from this study, the researchers can now investigate other funerary masks held in private and museum collections to find out if the use of cinnabar paint mixed with human blood was a practice that was really restricted to elites. If the team can extract genetic information from the blood, Carvalho said, they may even be able to determine the identity of the individuals whose blood ended up serving Sicán society’s elite even after death.