Ancient pots reveal reptile pee pigments and cultural connections

A study on the pottery of Peru's Paracas civilization tells us more about their neighbors 2,000 years ago—and turns up a unique ingredient.


Pottery made by the Paracas culture of Peru (900-100 B.C.) is admired today for its color and variety in design.

The colorful pottery created by the ancient Paracas culture, which depicts a variety of abstract forms, people, and animals, would have perked up their drab surroundings on the southern Peruvian coastal desert more than 2,000 years ago. Now, researchers are discovering that these painted pots are also providing important—and surprising—information on the unique science behind the pigments and how connections between the Paracas culture (900-100 B.C.) and other ancient Andean cultures changed over time.

In a paper published today in the journal Antiquity, conservator Dawn Kriss worked with other experts to analyze 14 colorful Paracas ceramics from the collections of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the time and location in which the different painted vessels were manufactured—and even the colors themselves— varied, the researchers were intrigued to learn that one constant almost always stayed the same: The plant-based binder, or the substance that held the paints together.

“We had a continuous binder being used, which means there’s a shared technology across this region and over time,” says Kriss.

While the scientists are still unable to determine what plant created the binder, they came across an unexpected and unusual ingredient in some of the pigments—reptile urine.

Tests on two light blue and white painted pottery sherds from the site of Cahuachi revealed that their pigments were completely different than those used on any of the other artifacts analyzed, and contained high amounts of uric...

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