WASHINGTON (April 17, 2002)–Thousands of mummies, most from the Inca culture some 500 years ago, have been found in an ancient cemetery under a busy shantytown on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.
Remains of more than 2,200 individuals have been recovered at the site. It is believed to be the largest cemetery ever excavated in Peru from one time period, a span of about 75 years ending around 1535. Archaeologists think the sprawling, 20-acre site was a central cemetery for the Inca people, a place where as many as 10,000 came to their final rest.
Many of the burials are “mummy bundles,” some weighing hundreds of pounds and enfolding as many as seven individuals, along with their possessions. Some of the mummies, apparently elite members of Inca society, still wear the headdress feathers that marked their rank; delicate spondylus shells from Ecuador decorate some graves. Some 50,000 to 60,000 artifacts have been retrieved.
The discovery team, mostly Peruvians, was led by archaeologist Guillermo (Willy) Cock, 48, of Lima. The National Geographic Society, which funded emergency excavation of the site, announced the discovery April 17.
The sheer quantity of burials found represents an unprecedented opportunity to solve some of the mysteries of the Inca, Cock said. The thousands of mummies add up to a scientific sampling of the Inca people and represent a wide spectrum of Inca life — from infants to the elderly and from the very poor to the very rich. Previous information on the Inca culture has come from scatterings of burials, most of only a few individuals, not enough to allow many firm conclusions about Inca ways.
“The mummies are starting to ‘chat’ with us, telling some amazing stories,” Cock said. One of the bundles, christened the Cotton King, was made up of some 300 pounds of raw cotton. Inside was the body of an Inca noble and a baby, probably related, as well as 70 items, including food, pottery, animal skins, and corn to make a fermented drink known as chicha. (Exclusive photographs of the contents of the Cotton King’s bundle appear in an article on the find in the May 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine.)
Cock and his team worked frantically over the last three years to salvage as many burials as possible before the shantytown on top leveled the area for further development. The site, known to archaeologists as Puruchuco-Huaquerones, is called Tupac Amaru by the 1,240 families living there. People began to settle there in 1989 after fleeing guerrilla activity in the Peruvian highlands.
When archaeological excavation started, the town was dumping some 40,000 gallons a day of liquids including sewage into the streets, where it seeped into the burials below. Six feet down, the mummies, well-preserved for nearly 500 years in the bone-dry soil, began to decompose. Other graves were destroyed by bulldozers in 1998.
Confronted with a choice — either leave the place or aid the archaeological rescue project — townspeople scraped together money to win the right to remain at the site, a national monument. Archaeologists transformed the town into a dig, turning the narrow streets into trenches. Bridges had to be built for people to cross the streets in front of their makeshift homes. Many of them went to work on the project.
The team soon discovered that the dusty playground in front of the town’s school apparently was once a burial ground for the Inca elite; it yielded more than 120 mummy bundles. Many more bundles were found at various points across the town.
A few mummy bundles were first discovered at Puruchuco in 1956, but the site was not explored. In 1985 some 70 test pits were excavated and 24 burials reported. Cock and his team of up to 18 specialists began work there in 1999. The next year they recovered 985 bundles and partial remains of another 250 individuals.
As initial funds ran out, a National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration grant allowed the team in 2001 to zero in on excavating high-status mummy bundles, located in two parts of the old cemetery. Such “elite” burials are extremely rare Inca finds, usually picked clean by looters well before archaeologists see them.
“Mummy bundles are like time capsules from the Inca,” said Johan Reinhard, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, about the find. “The huge number of mummies from one period of time provides an unparalleled opportunity for new information about the Incas.”
The short 2001 excavation season recovered nearly twice as many bundles as expected, including 22 intact and 18 disturbed “false heads” — falsas cabezas. These are bundles with a protuberance on top filled with cotton and resembling a human head. Some are adorned with a metal mask or a wig made of vegetable fibers, dyed black.
The falsas cabezas contain several individuals, one apparently the principal person, the others presumably accompanying him in the afterlife. The bodies of adults are in the fetal position, classic Inca burial posture, with possessions arranged around them.
Today schoolchildren play on the dusty field where many of the elite bundles were found, their sandals crushing tiny bits of Inca corn and human hair that remain on the surface. A gully in the middle of the site, where Inca teeth and hair still jut from the gray-brown earth, collects some of the town’s trash.
A few miles away at Cock’s lab in Lima, physical anthropologists from the United States and Canada are examining bones and other remains from the site to try to answer some intriguing questions: Who were these individuals, and how were the people in each bundle related? What was the state of their health? What kind of work did they do? How did they die?
Cock has no immediate plans to dig again at Puruchuco — houses cover most of the untapped areas. He is heartened that electricity has come to the town but wishes excavation could continue. “We know there are hundreds of bundles still there,” he said. “Having to walk away is frustrating. What’s left may have been a huge contribution to knowledge of the Inca.”
A National Geographic Special, “Inca Mummies,” featuring the remarkable finds at Puruchuco and other Inca discoveries, will premiere globally in May 2002. The Special will premiere on PBS on May 15, 2002; internationally, National Geographic Channel will present “Inca Mummies” throughout May in 138 countries around the world (check local listings for dates and times).
Explore the Inca discovery at nationalgeographic.com/inca.