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Tomb of "Giants" Unearthed in Peru

Archaeologists have unearthed a series of tombs rich with treasures of an extinct Peruvian culture. The 1,500-year-old graves held five unusually tall young men surrounded by textiles, ceramics, llama skeletons, and decorative metal works.

The remains are Moche, a culture that thrived on the desert-like coast of northern Peru between A.D. 100 and 800. A farming and fishing community, they constructed irrigation canals, pyramids, palaces, and temples.

The origins of the Moche remain unknown, according to lead archaeologist Christopher Donnan. The skeletons, found during a 1997-99 National Geographic-funded expedition, may yield clues to their culture.

Archaeologist Christopher Donnan examines a male skeleton at the Peru burial site. The skeleton showed abnormalities that may indicate that the man suffered from a disease similar to Marfan syndrome, a genetic bone disorder.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett/NGS

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National Geographic Magazine

But the discovery also yields more questions: Why were the people found so tall? What caused their early demise?

Donnan's colleague Alana Cordy-Collins, who helped excavate the site, suggests that the skeletons exhibit symptoms of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of connective tissue.

That each skeleton has thin, elongated bones is no coincidence, said Cordy-Collins: "We're convinced that it's a genetic anomaly."

Marfan: Now a 'Medical Success'

People with Marfan syndrome tend to be taller than unaffected family members. "Their arms and legs are disproportionately long," explained Eileen Masciale of the National Marfan Foundation.

While Moche males averaged 4' 10'' to 5' 6'' (147 to 168 centimeters) , the men found in the tombs measured a towering 5' 9'' to 6' (175 to 182 centimeters.

The skeletal abnormalities associated with Marfan syndrome also produce longer fingers and an indented chest bone, characteristics found on the Peruvian skeletons.

The skeletal symptoms of Marfan may help identify people with the disease, but "The life threatening part of [Marfan] is how it affects their cardiovascular system," said Masciale. The syndrome often causes potentially fatal aortic complications that Masciale said can cause premature deaths in Marfan patients.

"Even in the 1940s they couldn't do anything about it," she said, causing life expectancies for those with Marfan to be lower than normal in the past. In the last several decades, however, advances in medical technology have brought new hope to Marfan patients and their families.

For the Moche, however, Marfan syndrome seems to have been a deadly disease. "None of the men was over 22," said Cordy-Collins. Their contemporaries often lived to 50, she said.

"[Marfan] is one of the great medical success stories," said Masciale. Diagnosed Marfan sufferers can now expect to live into their 70s, she said. "They don't need to suffer the same fate as these ancient people."

Diagnosing People of the Past

The Moche discoveries join Abraham Lincoln and an Egyptian king on the list of historical figures suspected of having Marfan syndrome.

Akhenaton ruled Egypt in the 14th century B.C. Depictions of the king show a man with physical symptoms of Marfan—an elongated face, limbs, and wide hips.

Lincoln, known for his tall stature, is also thought to have had the disease. DNA testing may be useful in diagnosing the disease in Lincoln, said Masciale, but researchers worry about destroying the president's remains by testing.

Cordy-Collins has sent photographs of the skeletons to scientists around the world, hoping to gain a final diagnosis of her discoveries. Although she's received responses to her inquiries, scientists have yet to name Marfan as the definitive cause of the abnormalities.

"What would really clinch it," said Cordy-Collins,"is if we could get the ancient DNA."

Unfortunately, finding intact DNA in the skeletons is a guessing game, she said. "The technology is not quite there yet."

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Treasures of the Tombs

In addition to uncovering a medical mystery, archaeologists discovered tombs rich with cultural treasures of the Moche.

The artifacts, pictured and discussed in the March issue of National Geographic magazine, include ceramics, textiles, and human sacrifices.

"The quality of the ceramics and metalwork is astonishing," said Donnan.

The objects were often decorated with scenes of hunting, fishing, combat, punishment, sexual encounters, and elaborate ceremonies.

One of the tombs was particularly rich, suggesting that in life its occupant had wielded enormous power. The man's face was covered with a copper bowl and gold-and-copper funerary mask.

Images of bats, common in Moche depictions of human sacrifice and ritual blood drinking, filled the man's tomb, including a headdress decorated with gilded copper bats and a bat nose ornament of solid gold.

The nobleman was accompanied in death by the bodies of a llama and a young female attendant, both likely sacrificed to accompany him.