Tombs of Pre-Inca Elite Discovered Under Peru Pyramid

Kelly Hearn in Buenos Aires, Argentina
for National Geographic News
November 27, 2006

A complex of tombs recently discovered under a pyramid in Peru offers landmark clues to a thousand-year-old pre-Incan culture, archaeologists report.

A team co-led by Izumi Shimada, an archaeologist with Southern Illinois University, found 22 artifact-laden tombs about 420 miles (675 kilometers) northwest of Lima, the capital (Peru map).

Among the findings are meticulously arranged human remains; gold, gilt copper, and bronze artifacts; and the first decorated tumi, or ceremonial knives, ever discovered by archaeologists at a burial site.

The graves belong to elite members of the Middle Sican culture, a gold-working people whose farming culture thrived in Peru's desert coastal region from around A.D. 900 to 1100.

Shimada and colleague Carlos Elera Arevalo, director of Peru's Sican National Museum, say the discovery is yielding crucial clues to this ancient civilization.

"What is most important about our fieldwork is we found an intact pre-Hispanic elite cemetery," Shimada said in an email interview.

The tombs formed a kind of religious complex that had managed to escape looters who commonly pillage burial sites throughout Peru.

Shimada said finding these rare objects undisturbed can help researchers "divine the context in which ceremonial items were used."

Ceremonial Knives

A key find involved 12 ceremonial tumi knives. Eight of the knives were plain, four were decorated, and two bore the likeness of the Sican Deity, believed by Sicans to rule the supernatural world.

Archaeologists have previously found undecorated tumi knives in residential and ceremonial settings. But until now they had never excavated ceremonial knives bearing "ideologically charged representations of the Sican Deity," Shimada said.

Until this discovery, Shimada added, the only decorated knives that archaeologists could study were those taken from tomb raiders.

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