The Pachacamac Idol of ancient Peru was a multi-coloured and sacred icon, worshipped for almost 700 years before Spanish conquest, scientists have said.
The figure is a symbolically carved wooden statue from the Pachacamac archaeological complex, the principal coastal Inca sanctuary 31km (19 miles) south of Lima, during the 15th-16th centuries.
It was reportedly damaged in 1533 during Spanish conquest of the region, and details of its antiquity have been unclear.
Now researchers have unlocked the mystery of the post’s red colouring using non-invasive and non-destructive analysis.
They found that red was not the only colour present on the piece of wood, observing white on the teeth of a personage and yellow on some headdresses.
Researchers discovered the red colour was not blood, but mercury from cinnabar, a mercury mineral known in that region for more than 2,000 years.
Cinnabar sources in the Andes are 400km (248 miles) from Pachacamac.
Therefore, say the scientists, the idol was painted intentionally to show economic and political power by carrying a pigment from a faraway region even though others were available on site.
In the study published in the PLOS ONE journal, Marcela Sepulveda, of the University of Tarapaca, Chile, and colleagues obtained a wood sample from the idol for chemical analysis.
Through carbon dating, they were able to determine that the wood was cut and likely to have been carved in approximately 760-876 AD.
They said this suggests the statue was worshipped for almost 700 years before Spanish conquest.
The authors write: “Here, polychromy of the so-called Pachacamac Idol is demonstrated, including the presence of cinnabar.”
They add: “The unpublished chemical results obtained in this study show an exceptionally colourful palette for a venerated and sacred wooden statue preserved for nearly 700 years, demonstrating the significance of the Idol for those who worshipped it.
“As with the societies of Old World Antiquity, for which statues and other objects of adoration were almost certainly decorated with colours, the polychromy revealed in the so-called Pachacamac Idol provides evidence of a similar practice and adds a new material dimension for cult and pilgrimage in the Andean region.”