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Rare Mass Tombs Discovered Near Machu Picchu

José Orozco in Caracas, Venezuela
for National Geographic News
September 15, 2008
 
Eighty skeletons and stockpiles of textiles found in caves near the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu may shed light on the role that the so-called lost city of the Inca played as a regional center of trade and power, scientists say.

Researchers found the artifacts and remains at two sites within the Machu Picchu Archaeological Park in southeastern Peru, said Fernando Astete, head of the park (see map of Peru).

The remains, most of which were found in May 2008 at a site called Salapunku, probably date to 500 to 550 years ago, said Francisco Huarcaya, the site's lead researcher.

Due to extensive looting, however, as much as 75 percent of the fabrics found wrapped around the remains are in "bad shape," Huarcaya said.

So far only the heads and shoulders of most of the bodies have been uncovered, Astete added.

"The head and shoulder bones are seen first, because the Inca buried their dead [sitting] in the fetal position," he explained.

Formal excavations will soon begin at both sites. Huarcaya plans to exhume the remains of five people at Salapunku later this month.

Tombs and Textiles

The modest funerary wrappings, made of vegetable fiber, and the simple grave objects, including unadorned ceramics, suggest that the dead unearthed at Salapunku were peasant farmers, Huarcaya said. Weavers have been found accompanied by their weaving baskets, balls of thread, looms, and textiles, according to Guillermo Cock, an expert on Andean cultures.

Cock has received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Textiles found at the second site, called Qhanabamba, discovered in August 2008, may also provide clues to the social rank of the dead.

Peasants were more likely to have been buried with textiles made from llama wool, while wool of the vicuña—a relative of the llama—was reserved for nobility, said Astete, the park's director.

Human remains are rare near Machu Picchu, and the wet mountain climate makes textiles uncommon finds, said Cock, who was not part of the research team.

"Finding organic material in the mountains is significant because it's so scarce," he said. "The humidity from rain decomposes individuals and textiles."

Analysis of the bones should also reveal age at death, sex, cause of death, diet, and perhaps even the dead's occupations, Astete added.

"We should be able to tell whether these people carried large burdens to help construct terraces, for example. Their bones will be bent, not straight. They will have deformities," he explained.

"Bones will also tell us about their diets and diseases. A fracture would reveal an accident."

The burial of human remains held special significance for the Inca, added Huarcaya, the lead researcher.

"The remains in tombs are like the guardians of the population in Andean ideology," he said. "For [ancient Andeans], death does not exist."

Machu Picchu Revealed

Built around 1460, the city of Machu Picchu seems to have been abandoned after the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, though it was never found by the conquerors.

Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham brought Machu Picchu to worldwide attention after local Indians led him to the site in 1911. (See Bingham's original photos of Machu Picchu from his expedition.)

The new discoveries promise to shed light on the mystery of the ancient city and its role within the Inca Empire, Cock said.

"We know Machu Picchu, but we don't know its surrounding areas," he said.

"I think new material will be found that will help us understand the Inca's relationship with the region."
 

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