for National Geographic News
A 1,300-year-old skeleton buried with a cache of gold artifacts has been found in a Bolivian pyramid, archaeologists say.
The remains are believed to belong to an elite member of the ancient Tiwanaku culture, which thrived on the shores of Lake Titicaca from about A.D. 400 to 1200 (see Bolivia map).
Scientists found the bones and offerings this spring in the upper reaches of the Akapana pyramid, a heavily looted temple experts say is one of the largest pre-Hispanic structures in South America.
The condition of the artifacts and the skeleton's location inside the pyramid lead researchers to believe the individual held high status.
"We believe the individual was a priest or a government figure in the Tiwanaku civilization," Danilo Villamor Encinas, an official with Department of Archaeology of Bolivia, said.
The bones, unlike others found in the pyramid, bear no physical markings of having been ritually sacrificed, he said, and the body was found near the top of the temple rather than at the base, where bones are typically found.
Bolivian archeologists who first announced the find in March said the corpse had been buried with a llama, believed to aid in passage to the afterlife, as well as a gold headband and a fist-size gold pendant.
Researchers have since found a third gold figurine, Villamor said.
"It is very small figurine of gold with two eyes and a mouth and is similar to others found at the site," he said.
Villamor added that the individual—a diminutive 25-year-old male—had suffered from malnutrition, perhaps as a child.
"This called our attention, because normally a person that enjoyed a high social rank would be well fed and well cared for," he said.
"This leads us to speculate that this individual lived during a time of cultural stress where there would have been widespread shortages of resources."
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