Thousands of Inca Mummies Raised From Their Graves

David Braun in Puruchuco, Peru
National Geographic News
Updated April 22, 2002

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Thousands of Inca mummies—many with hair, skin, and eyes intact—have been rescued from beneath the streets of a sprawling settlement on the outskirts of Lima,Peru.

The 500-year-old bodies of more than two thousand men,women, and children were excavated from a large Inca graveyard that may contain as many as 10,000 dead. Above the ground, a few feet over the mummies, thousands of their descendants were going about their daily lives.

Archaeologists recovering the bodies found many of them in "mummy bundles," large cocoons that held up to seven individuals and weighed as much as 400 pounds (180 kilograms). Some of the bundles bound adults and children—perhaps entire families—together, wrapped in layers of raw cotton and exquisite textiles.

About 40 of the large mummy bundles are topped with false heads, known to archaeologists as falsas cabezas. Such heads, some covered with wigs, were known to be attached to mummy bundles that encased members of the Inca elite. Until this discovery, only one falsa cabeza from the Inca period is believed to have been documented.

Also recovered with the mummies were 50,000 to 60,000 artifacts, from personal valuables to food and everyday utensils. The items formed part of Inca funerals, perhaps interred with the dead to ease their existence in the afterlife.

"This is one of the most significant finds in the history of Inca archaeology," said Guillermo Cock, project leader at the excavation site, known as Puruchuco, which is a few miles east of downtown Lima, Peru's teeming capital. "We have so much that we will be kept busy for years sorting it out. With this, we will rewrite the history of Inca culture."

The mass excavation of the ancient graves was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration as an emergency project.

"This is an extremely important find," said Chris Donnan, professor in the department of anthropology, University of California Los Angeles. "The excavation, conducted by an excellent team of Peruvian archaeologists, has uncovered a wealth of evidence that is certain to greatly refine our understanding of the Inca empire."

Although a great deal has been written about the Inca empire, and the way its expansion impacted provincial communities, the Puruchuco find was some of the best archaeological evidence uncovered to understand what really happened, Donnan added.

"These mummy bundles, and the amazing assortment of objects wrapped within them, will provide researchers for years with critical information about the Inca, and how the Inca were able to create the largest empire that ever developed in pre-Columbian America."

Archaeologists have known for years that Puruchuco is the site of an Inca cemetery, but they were unable to halt a steady influx of people moving into the area and setting up a shantytown on top of it.

Homes Above Burial Grounds

Continued on Next Page >>


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