WASHINGTON–A team led by Peruvian archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Guillermo Cock has uncovered the skeleton of the first documented gunshot victim in the New World in an Inca cemetery outside Lima, Peru. The body is thought to be the first forensically proven casualty of the Spanish conquest, one of 72 apparent victims of an uprising against the conquistadors.
Cock, who has worked more than 20 years to unravel the mysteries of these Indian gravesites, had dug a test trench in a hillside in the suburb of Puruchuco at the request of the Lima city government, which planned a road there. In the 6- by 24-meter trench, Cock and archaeologist colleague Elena Goycochea quickly struck a set of graves and concluded that the spot had been a cemetery.
Since they began digging in 2004, the team has excavated about 500 skeletons dating back some 500 years to the Inca civilization. Known as the Romans of the New World, the Inca conquered the entire Andean region until their reign ended in 1532 with the Spanish invasion.
Cock found that 72 of the bodies on the hillside had been buried without the usual Inca reverence for death, such as being ritually wrapped, placed in a crouched position and facing east. “These bodies were strangely buried,” Cock said. “They were not facing the right direction, they were tied up or hastily wrapped in a simple cloth, they had no offerings and they were buried at a shallow depth. Some of the bodies also showed signs of terrible violence. They had been hacked, torn, impaled — injuries that looked as if they had been caused by iron weapons — and several had injuries on their heads and faces that looked as if they were caused by gunshots.”
One of the skulls bore an entrance and exit wound, and nearby a plug of bone that might have been blasted out of the skull was found. At first, Cock thought the holes in the skull were modern — resulting from vandals’ shots. But the plug of bone, recovered intact, reflected an impact much less forceful than any modern gunshot and carried a distinct concave imprint highly suggestive of a musket ball.
Based on evidence from the field site, Cock became convinced he had found a gunshot victim from Inca times. Physical anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University agreed after making field observations; team member and bio-archaeologist Melissa Murphy of Bryn Mawr College suggested they search for definitive evidence.
To determine conclusively if the wound was caused by a gunshot, Cock and his team decided to use technology to examine the skull for any traces of metal residue around the edges of the wound. Cock, Goycochea and Murphy took the skull and other bones to Lima’s renowned Resomasa center for CT scanning. No evidence of metal emerged.
Undaunted, Cock turned to forensic scientist Tim Palmbach at the University of New Haven, who called in the university’s Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science in Connecticut, one of the world’s foremost forensic facilities. “We tried to rule out all kinds of causes of the hole — a rock from a slingshot, spear, sledgehammer,” said Al Harper, executive director of the institute. “We were asking what could have been responsible for this pattern of injury.”
Harper and Palmbach then decided to view the skull with a powerful scanning electronic microscope. “We all thought it was a million-to-one chance that we would find any traces of metal on a skull that old, but it was worth a try,” Harper said.
They did. Edges of the holes in the skull and the entire bone plug were found to be impregnated with fragments of iron, a metal sometimes used for Spanish musket balls. It appears that a musket ball less than an inch in diameter had punched into the back of the skull and passed through the head, leaving pieces of iron deep inside the bone that stayed there for 500 years.
“This conclusively proves that the person was killed by a gunshot, and he is the first identified shooting victim in the Americas,” Cock said. Since the initial find, at least two other apparent gunshot victims have been identified.
The injuries on the skull and the two other bodies were believed caused by weapons consistent with those used by Spanish soldiers at the time. The guns used to inflict these injuries were some of the world’s first firearms –16th-century Europe’s most advanced military technology, according to military historian John Guilmartin of West Point Military Academy. “The Spaniards knew how to use them,” he said.
Cock and his team believe the killings took place in the summer of 1536 during an Inca uprising against the Spanish occupiers led by Francisco Pizarro, known as the siege of Lima. Among the 72 hastily buried bodies were several women and adolescents. Cock said these would not have been soldiers but attendants and supporters of the warriors, who cooked, carried supplies and took care of the injured.
The bodies were hastily buried most likely because the Inca, in the midst of the uprising, had no time or resources to bury their dead in the appropriate, traditional manner. The shallow graves and chaotically arranged bodies, with few wrappings and no offerings, bear testament to the fact the Inca were too rushed to afford the victims proper death rituals.
The cemetery lies less than a half-mile from thousands of Inca mummy bundles discovered at Puruchuco by Cock beginning in 1999. That discovery was announced in April 2002 and in a May 2002 cover article in National Geographic magazine. The archaeologists have uncovered a total of nearly 1,800 bundles and tens of thousands of artifacts at Puruchuco.
The excavations at Puruchuco have been funded by the National Geographic Society and the municipality of Lima, with a permit provided by Peru’s National Institute of Culture. Murphy’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The new finds at Puruchuco will be featured in “The Great Inca Rebellion,” a new NOVA/National Geographic special, premiering Tuesday, June 26, 2007, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS (check local listings).
To view a short videotape on the discovery suitable for your Web site’s use, please go to: