Did the Inca loot ancient mummies?

Excavations at the ancient site of Pachacamac on the Pacific coast of Peru have unearthed a 1,000-year-old cemetery. Université Libre de Bruxelles’s Center for Archaeological Research (CReA-Patrimoine) have been excavating the site 25 miles southeast of Lima for 15 years and have found numerous cemeteries. This one is in an area of the archaeological site that hasn’t been excavated before.

[The team] found a cluster of burials in foetal positions, wrapped in numerous layers of plant materials, nets and textiles.

“These burials were interred in groups” says Professor Peter Eeckhout (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB) – director of the Ychsma Project – “interred in deep pits sunk into the sand, accompanied with ceramics and other offerings, then covered with wood and rushwork roofs”.

Previous excavations have found an unusually high proportion of disease in the skeletal remains. Inca sources claim the city was a religious center with a reputation for healing, making it a pilgrimage site for people suffering from illness. The latest find confirms those accounts. Physical anthropologist Dr. Lawrence Owens led the team that examined the remains.

“Most of the people at the site had hard lives, with various fractures, bad backs, bad hips…but the individuals from this cemetery show a higher than usual concentration of tuberculosis, syphilis and really serious bone breaks that would have had major impacts on their lives. Still, the fact that most of these are healed – and that disease sufferers survived for a long time – suggests that they were being cared for, and that even in the sites’ early history people felt a duty of care towards those less fortunate than themselves”.

Pachacamac was founded by the Wari around 200 A.D., but most of the major public buildings and temples were constructed by the Lima and Ychsma cultures between 800 and 1450 when the polity was absorbed into the Inca Confederacy. The Inca respected the local creator god and the city’s namesake Pacha Kamaq, incorporating him into their pantheon albeit as secondary to the Incan creator god Viracocha. They built several new temples in the city, expanding the facilities for pilgrims and spreading its reputation as religious healing center throughout the Confederacy.

As with most of the mummy bundles unearthed at Pachacamac (one salient exception was found last year), the ones found in the recently-discovered cemetery are not intact. They were damaged during the construction of a large building above the cemetery under Inca rule. It’s not just general damage caused by building work or the extensive looting that took place in the 17th century after the Spanish conquest. There is evidence here of targeted action against the mummies. Almost all of the mummies are missing their heads and some other specific parts.

This strongly suggests the Inca deliberately desecrated the city’s ancient dead, perhaps harvesting them for their own religious purposes. The Inca treated their own graves with reverence, but they were not related to the ancient peoples of Pachacamac and while they promoted some of the local traditions, they didn’t revere their dead as they did their own ancestors.

One thought on “Did the Inca loot ancient mummies?

  1. So is it now confirmed that syphilis originated in the Americas? The so-called ‘Columbian exchange’ hypothesis?

    If bodies from 1000 years ago had signs, does that not predate the first recorded descriptions of The Pox in Europe?

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