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

Guerrilla activity in the mountains during the 1980s drove thousands of refugees to the relative sanctuary of Lima. Hundreds of families erected makeshift homes on top of the Inca burial ground at Puruchuco. They named the settlement Tupac Amaru, after the last Inca ruler, who was executed by Spanish conquerors in 1572.

Tupac Amaru came to symbolize the tension between the needs of living Peruvians attracted to Lima's security and economic opportunities, and their country's Inca heritage, including buried ruins, artifacts—and mummies. Puruchuco was a national archaeological monument; Tupac Amaru was the living space for the people of today, desperately in need of shelter, employment, and safety.

Over time it became clear that Tupac Amaru was not going to be a temporary settlement. Residents began pressing political representatives for title to the Puruchuco land so that they could build permanent dwellings and install utilities. They raised a considerable sum of money among themselves to help fund excavations so that the site could be examined professionally, then shut down permanently as an archaeological area.

It was during that archaeological exploration, in 1999 and 2000, that Cock and others discovered the extent of the treasures under Tupac Amaru. While some graves had been discovered, and even looted, no one had realized thousands more remained hidden. Or that some of the graves were of the Inca elite, containing priceless artifacts.

"We could not excavate under the houses, so we were confined to the streets and the school playground," Cock said. "What we found was so big—with so many mummies and artifacts—that we applied to National Geographic for emergency funding to take out as much as we could before the bulldozers closed in and it was all lost to us."

In ten weeks of excavations last year, Cock's team recovered more than 1,200 bundles of different types.

Residents Relieved

Cock's team employed Tupac Amaru residents to help with the digging and guarding of the excavations. Many of the townspeople were relieved to see the mummies removed, Cock said. "They are afraid of the dead; they believe they cause them daña [illnesses], which is why they would prefer it if the mummies are moved."

The mummies were entombed in ideal conditions for preservation—the extremely dry soil of the coastal Peruvian desert, where no rain may fall for as long as 20 years. "Preservation conditions are so good, we can determine the sex of people simply by looking at their genitals," said Cock. "Even the eyes are still there."

After being well preserved for centuries, the mummies have been deteriorating rapidly as a result of disturbance from human occupation. Residents of Tupac Amaru have scraped the surface of the ground to build makeshift dwellings, ripping up mummies in the process. Because the settlement has no sewerage, residents dump water and wastes in the dirt streets. Some of the mummies have decomposed as a result of the seepage.

Archaeologists are particularly intrigued by the wide variety of mummies that have been excavated from the site.

"There is some evidence of a large Inca palace existing near the cemetery," Cock said. "It appears that a lot of the Inca elite were buried here, together with the common people who would have lived in the nearby hills. We believe we may have bodies from ten different social stratifications here."

The range of status, age, and gender of the mummies—as well as the rich textiles and other artifacts recovered—are expected to give archaeologists major insight into Inca culture and the people themselves. The well-preserved bodies will enable scientists to determine the general health of the population, genetic relationships, sources of food, and causes of death.

The find, taken as a whole, will also shed light on the Inca political, social, and economic systems.

"We are so happy we have this, and not the grave robbers," Cock said. Looting and smuggling of antiquities is a major problem in Peru and many other countries, and many sites have been stripped of their contents before archaeologists have had an opportunity to study the remains. Mummies dug up by robbers have often been found strewn on open ground, denuded of ornamentation and clothing.

Before Cock's excavations, Tupac Amaru residents who encountered a mummy often would douse it with gasoline and burn it.

"The people of Tupac Amaru were very supportive of this project. They helped pay for it, and helped with the excavation and guarding of the open graves," Cock said.

It will take scientists years to unwrap and study the contents of the Puruchuco mummy bundles. The work is done with tenderness, in part out of deep respect for the dead.

"We do treat and deal with them not only as people but as ancestors, from whom we all relate in one or another way," Cock said. "These people are us from a few hundred years ago."

Cock estimates that some 60 percent of the occupants of the Inca burial ground have not been recovered.

After the scientists have finished studying the recovered mummies and artifacts, they will be returned to the Puruchuco area for display in a museum.

Read a biography of Willy Cock and a Q&A with him prepared by National Geographic Specials: Go>>

Read and hear this story on the National Public Radio Web site: Go>>

More National Geographic News Stories About the Inca:

City Occupied by Inca Discovered on Andean Peak in Peru

Machu Picchu Under Pressure From Tourism

Machu Picchu Re-Created on Geographic Map

A National Geographic Television special documentary on the project, "Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World," premieres in the United States on PBS, on May 15. The documentary will be available as a home video in late May. The Puruchuco excavation project is the cover story in the May issue of National Geographic magazine.

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