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Inca Mummies

This month National Geographic Magazine and Television tell an amazing story of an archeological find which may shed new light on the Inca civilization that flourished long ago in Peru.

In a shantytown known as Tupac Amaru archeologists have discovered thousands of mummies and artifacts. Betty Van Etten has the story of the Inca mummies.

“This is an individual between 40 and 45 years old.”

It is the face of an Inca Mummy, the exotic feather headdress still intact

“He was accompanied by two children. One was here next to his face and the other, was at his feet.”

Archeologist Guillermo “Willy" Cock and his team uncovered more than 2,000 individuals wrapped as mummy bundles during a three-year excavation on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. National Geographic helped fund the work and documented the effort at the site, a shantytown called Tupac Amaru.

“In Tupac Amaru, Willy's team has dug deep enough that they're now finding mummies perfectly intact preserved by the bone dry sands of Peru's desert coast. These mummies are unique; they're huge, wrapped in yards of cotton. There may be as many as seven bodies inside each bundle.”

The discovery, Mr. Cock says, will give a richer picture of the Inca society which flourished for less than a century beginning in the late 1430's.

“The classic ceramic from the Inca. It really confirms the relationship between the people that were buried here with the Inca Empire.”

The Inca Empire is known as one of the three great pre-Columbian civilizations. It stretched from the pacific coast and Andean highlands of South America from the northern border of modern Ecuador to Central Chile. The capital was in Peru. While mummies are not unusual, what is unusual, Mr. Cock says, is the number and quality of the ones recovered at Tupac Amaru, and the information they are giving scientists.

“It was always thought that Inca Empire really was like a super structure linked to the local elite's and that the people, the commoners didn't participate much into the Inca culture. But through the remains, the offering that we have examined, we can attest that that was not completely true. There is really integration.”

Mr. Cock says that integration is also seen in the ceramics which came from different regions of the Inca empire.

“What we have been able to observe is that these local styles were melting, were disappearing, were taking a new form in order to show a new common view of the world, a new sense of ethnicity, a new sense of nationality. The Inca in that sense were integrating the people and dissolving the differences between local ethnic groups.”

The archeological worked against time to recover the mummy bundles. There is no sewage system at Tupac Amaru and liquid waste had begun to seep into the graves.

“As you can see the water goes into the ground and it stayed, more mummies have been destroyed. This is why this salvage is so important.”

At the same time, Mr. Cock says, the team members were sensitive to what it was they were recovering.

“I have insisted time and time again we see them as people. We nickname them because of some characteristics, we have “Violetita”, we have “Senorita,” the “Senorita” is a sort of a joke, she has two kids she very young we call her “The Senorita, The Cotton King.” There is “Simeon” there are no two bundles the same there are not two individuals that are the same and we keep in that mind.”

The fall of the Inca Empire came with the Spanish Conquest beginning in the 1530s.

“The bundle seems to mirror the hard times that came with the conquest. It contains only one small offering, a gourd. A baby's bundle lies beside the body of the adult. It's almost perfectly preserved. Physical anthropologists will study the bones.”

There are more challenges ahead as scientists catalogue the immense collection and try to decipher the clues inside the mummy bundles. And yet, there are still more mummies in the ground at Tupac Amaru. It will take more funding to retrieve them, but Mr. Cock says with every mummy they find, that person's story comes to life. Another piece of the puzzle to help reconstruct the past.