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Athena Review: Vol.3, no.2: Recent Finds in Archaeology 

City of Inca mummies yields bounty of knowledge

When Francisco Pizarro toppled the Inca monarchy in the mid 1530’s with a few hundred Spanish adventurers, the popular culture supporting the Inca rulers of the Peruvian Andes sank into relative obscurity. While there are many accounts of the subsequent colonial period, and numerous architectural ruins at Inca sites from Cuzco to Machu Pichu, many aspects of the lives of the pre-Spanish Incan people - a major Native American civilization - have been little known from the period just before the Conquest.

Now this is changing, with the discovery of thousands of Inca mummies near Lima from the period of about AD 1470-1535. About 2,200 mummy bundles of Inca men, women, and children, many in an excellent state of preservation, have been excavated at a shantytown named Tupac Amuru built over the Inca cemetery site of Puruchuco- Huaquerones, at the base of desert foothills on the eastern edge of the Peruvian capital.

The mummies were revealed largely by accident during the past decade, as the suburb of Tupac Amuru (named after the last Inca monarch, killed by Spaniards in 1572) grew from settlers fleeing 1980s guerilla warfare in the mountains. Sewage from the new settlement disturbed the sleeping city of the dead just underground, well preserved until then by the typically dry, sandy conditions of coastal Peru. Salvage excavation led by archaeologist Guillermo Cock of Peru's National Institute of Culture, and partly funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, converted streets into excavation trenches, to recover this unparalleled sample of the late 15th-early 16th century Inca population. Overall cemetary size at Puruchuco is estimated by Cock at about 10,000 bundles containing 15,000 people, making it one of the two largest Peruvian  mummy burial sites known, and the largest for the Late Horizon, Inca period. An estimated 60 percent of the burials remain undisturbed.

The excavations recovered over 1,200 burials in ten weeks last year, with Tupac Amaru residents assisting at the emergency dig. The archaeologists have been rewarded with a database that, quite literally, will rewrite our understanding of Incan culture. The several hundred Inca mummies examined so far represent two to three generations and a variety of social classes over a period of 60-75 years who died from a variety of causes ranging from malnutrition, anemia, and probable tuberculosis, to trauma and human sacrifice. The dead (many with hair, skin, and eyes still intact) were wrapped in cocoon-like bundles of raw cotton and woven textiles holding as many as seven individuals, some with both adults and children probably representing families. The bodies were dried or embalmed by being wrapped in fabric and buried upright in pits filled with crushed pottery sherds and gravel, which rapidly leached out the moisture. Some 45 per cent of the buried individuals were children under 12 years old. About 40 of the larger mummy bundles, meanwhile, were topped with false heads (some with wigs) known to have been used for burials of Inca elite. Only one example of such “falsas cabezas” has been previously excavated. Many of the bundles contained artifacts, personal items, food, and utensils which were probably meant for use in the afterlife. One person, nicknamed “the cotton king,” holding a small child, was wrapped in over 300 lbs of raw cotton, along with a well preserved sack of coca leaves and brick of quicklime - a combination also  much used today as a stimulant. The richest source of elite burials occurred beneath the town schoolyard.

The Inca empire, which spread north from Cuzco in 1438 to dominate the Andean region by 1450, has been considered an elite caste who took over local populations and imposed their imperial ideology on them. But the Puruchuco burial artifacts show a mixture of Inca and local styles, suggesting the creation of a unique synthesis around Lima. Given a relatively high proportion of elite burials mixed in with more modest mummy bundles, Cock believes there is evidence of a large Inca palace near the cemetery, and a perhaps as many as ten recognized Incan social statuses among the buried population. The well-preserved bodies will also allow detailed analysis of the diet, general health, and causes of death of the population, as well as their genetic relationships. Along with an estimated  50-60,000 artifacts from the mummy bundles, the Puruchuco burials represent a late Precolumbian time capsule of incredible scientific value. Mummies and artifacts will eventually be displayed in a Puruchuco museum.


National Geographic

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