One of the most remarkable mummies in the world is the Ukok Princess, a woman who lived in Siberia at least five centuries BCE. She was discovered in 1993, buried alongside a bag of weed and adorned in ornate tattoos still preserved all over her body. She was probably a woman of high status, as she was buried with several elaborately harnessed horses and many decorative accessories.
Technology has advanced since the early '90s, and researchers have since conducted deeper dives into analyzing the Ukok Princess. In 2010, MRI scans revealed she was probably in her mid-twenties and may have died of breast cancer. Was the drug she carried a pain relief method? There is much to be unpacked from this exciting discovery.
The 2,500-year-old princess of Ukok bears stunning tattoos most hipsters would be proud to call their own. The princess's left shoulder shows a deer-like creature with goat horns and an eagle's beak. An argali — mountain sheep — also appears with a bird's beak. You can also find a snow leopard with wings. The tattoos may depict a battle between birds and hoofed animals — a battle between predators and herbivores.
Scholars state the Pazyryk culture, to which the mummy belonged, valued tattoos; the more one had, the higher one's status. "Compared to tattoos found by archaeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful," said Dr. Natalia Polosmak, the scientist who discovered the mummy. She added:
Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification — like a passport now, if you like. The Pazyryks also believed the tattoos would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death.
When the mummy was first uncovered, it was difficult for researchers to ascertain her cause of death because all internal organs had been removed prior to mummification. However, MRI scans of the Ukok Princess's body taken in 2010 revealed that she probably died from breast cancer. Was that disease the immediate cause of her death? Probably, given that she was in the last stage of cancer by the time her death.
The princess's skeleton also bore little to no evidence of physical trauma, ruling out a more violent demise. According to Andrei Letyagin, chairman of the MRI Center of the Siberian department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, "Her skull is fully preserved, and so are the bones. DNA obtained from her remains is intriguing."
The Ukok Princess was found buried with a small container of marijuana that had been preserved for thousands of years in the Siberian permafrost. A meal comprised of sheep and horse meat was also preserved alongside a stone platter containing burned coriander seeds. Scholars surmise the princess was most likely in great pain by the time she died from breast cancer, and that she may have used the weed for medical purposes.
Marijuana might have offered additional benefits as well: evidence suggests the princess might have been a shaman, due to the care with which she was buried. She may well have used the marijuana in healing ceremonies or during shamanistic rituals. Either way, the value her people placed on her life and death was clearly a testament to the woman's status.
Six horses were buried with the Princess of Ukok and outfitted with intricate harnesses and colorful felt saddles, perhaps to indicate that they were meant to accompany her in the afterlife. They also served as status symbols, since horses were considered such valuable resources in ancient cultures. For a community to kill six horses and dedicate them to the gods via one person's grave, the honored individual was certainly worth time and expense.