Dozens of Inca Mummies Discovered Buried in Peru

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2004
Dozens of exquisitely preserved Inca mummies are being recovered from a barren hillside on the outskirts of Peru's bustling capital city, Lima. In a matter of months a highway will roar past the ancient cemetery.

"By now we have over 40 [mummy bundles] and the number increases every day," said Guillermo Cock, a Lima-based archaeologist.

Cock and his team were contracted by the city government to comb the hillside for any unknown archaeological remains prior to construction of the road, which is the final phase of a project to ease traffic congestion in Lima.

Three days after their excavations began on March 3, the team found the cemetery. The bundles—cocoons of one or more adult and child mummies wrapped together in layers of textiles—date back more than 500 years to the Inca Empire.

"Given the proximity to the city and the tradition of looting in the area, we are really surprised that this is mostly undisturbed, mostly intact, mostly unlooted. Only a few bundles have suffered damage by human action," Cock said.

The newfound site is on the northwestern edge the largest Inca cemetery ever excavated, Puruchuco-Huaquerones. With the support of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, Cock recovered thousands of mummies and artifacts at Puruchuco-Huaquerones between 1999 and 2001.

Johan Reinhard—the National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence who discovered the Inca "ice maiden" mummy on the frozen summit of Peru's Mount Ampato in 1995—said the new discovery will likely extend the already important finds from Puruchuco.

"Until they found the Puruchuco site, there hadn't been that many Inca burials excavated scientifically," Reinhard said. "It's great they are getting this stuff before it is destroyed."

Well Preserved

The site that Cock's team excavated several years ago lay beneath the sprawling shantytown of Tupac Amaru, which was settled in the 1980s by refugees escaping guerilla activity in the mountains.

The excavation of Tupac Amaru took place along city streets and in neighborhood parks. Several of the mummy bundles and artifacts were damaged by humidity caused by wastewater seeping into the soils. Other graves were looted before the archaeologists could reach them.

By contrast, the new site sits on a hill that has long been marked for a road that will feed traffic onto a new highway ringing Lima. As a result, the Tupac Amaru community could not build on the area, so humans have scarcely impacted the newfound ancient Inca cemetery.

"The state of preservation is really, really good," Cock said. The only damage encountered so far is in the graves closest to the surface, which have been damaged by passing people and wildlife.

Since the mummy bundles are only partially excavated, it is too early to tell how many individuals were buried at the site, but one of the damaged bundles shows the remains of an adult and at least one child.

Cock said the bundles are of medium, or normal, size, suggesting that the Inca buried there were part of the middle class. Some of the bundles recovered in past years at Tupac Amaru were large and believed to be the remains of Inca elite.

Like the artifacts found at Tupac Amaru, most of the tools recovered at the new site suggest these Inca were textile makers. Red corn, black beans, and gourds for drinking were found around the bundles and are indicative of preburial rituals.

"It may well be that these people belonged to an extended family that was related to the others," Cock said. "But for some reason that we are trying to determine, they were buried outside the main cemetery [at Puruchuco]."

Road Construction

The small hill where the Inca cemetery was found is all that stands between the two sections of Lima's new highway, a project 30 years in the making.

There are no plans to reroute the road now that the cemetery has been discovered. There are also no legal or technical challenges that could stop it, Cock said. He and his team will continue excavating for another two months, and then road construction will begin.

When complete, the road will pass nearby, but not over, the cemetery. "The true problem is the looters," he said. "If we leave the cemetery it is going to be destroyed in a few weeks."

The excavated and salvaged remains will be moved to a museum before construction of the highway begins.

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