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Massed on a high, cold Peruvian plain north of the great lake in the mid-1400s, the army of the Colla bristled with battle gear, daring the Inca invaders to make war. Pachacutec scanned the enemy ranks in silence, preparing for the great battle ahead. The lords of the Titicaca region were haughty men, ruling as many as 400,000 people in kingdoms arrayed around the lake. Their lands were rich and desirable. Gold and silver veined the mountains, and herds of alpacas and llamas fattened in lush meadows. Military success in the Andes depended on such livestock. A llama, the only draft animal on the continent, could carry 70 pounds of gear on its back. Llamas, along with alpacas, also provided meat, leather, and fiber for clothing. They were jeeps, K rations, and fatigues all rolled into one—crucial military assets. If the Inca king could not conquer the Titicaca lords who owned these vast herds, he would live in fear of the day these lords would come to conquer him.

Seated on a shimmering litter, Pachacutec issued the order to attack. Playing panpipes carved from the bones of enemies and war drums fashioned from the flayed skins of dead foes, his soldiers advanced toward the Colla forces, a moving wall of terror and intimidation. Then both sides charged. When the fog of battle lifted, Colla bodies littered the landscape.

In the years that followed, Pachacutec and his descendants subdued all the southern lords. "The conquest of the Titicaca Basin was the jewel in the crown of the Inca Empire," says Charles Stanish, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. But military victory was only the first step in the Inca's grand strategy of empire building. Officials next set about establishing civil control.

If provinces mounted resistance, Inca sovereigns reshuffled their populations, deporting restive inhabitants to the Inca heartland and replacing them with loyal subjects. Residents of remote walled villages were moved to new Inca-controlled towns sited along Inca roads—roads that sped the movement of Inca troops. Inca governors ordered the construction of roadside storehouses for those troops and commanded local communities to fill them with provisions. "The Inca were the organizational geniuses of the Americas," says Stanish.

Under Inca rule, Andean civilization flowered as never before. Inca engineers transformed fragmentary road networks into interconnected highways. Inca farmers mastered high-altitude agriculture, cultivating some 70 different native crops and often stockpiling three to seven years' worth of food in vast storage complexes. Imperial officials excelled at the art of inventory control, tracking storehouse contents across the realm with an ancient Andean form of computer code—colored and knotted cords known as quipus. And Inca masons raised timeless architectural masterpieces like Machu Picchu, which continues to awe visitors today.

By the time the Inca king Huayna Capac took power around 1493, little seemed beyond the reach of the Inca dynasty. To bring grandeur to his new capital in Ecuador, Huayna Capac put more than 4,500 rebellious subjects to work hauling immense stone blocks all the way from Cusco—a distance of nearly a thousand miles up and down vertiginous mountain roads. And in the Inca heartland, a small army of men and women toiled to construct a royal estate for Huayna Capac and his family. At the king's bidding, they moved the Urubamba River to the southern side of the valley. They leveled hills and drained marshes, then planted corn and other crops such as cotton, peanuts, and hot peppers from far corners of the empire. In the center of the estate, they laid stones and bricks for Huayna Capac's new country palace, Quispiguanca.

As the late afternoon sun slants down, I wander the ruins of Quispiguanca with Alan Covey, the archaeologist from SMU. Situated on the outskirts of the modern town of Urubamba, Quispiguanca basks in one of the warmest and sunniest microclimates in the region, which provided the Inca royal family a welcome escape from the cold of Cusco. The estate's gatehouses now look out on a field of pungent cilantro, and its surviving walls enclose a royal compound that once sprawled over an area equivalent to some seven soccer fields.

Encircled by parkland, fields, and gardens, Quispiguanca was an Inca version of Camp David, a retreat from the world, a place for a warrior-king to unwind after military campaigning. Here Huayna Capac entertained guests in the great halls and gambled with courtiers and other favorites, while his queen gardened and tended doves. The grounds boasted a secluded lodge and a forest reserved for hunting deer and other game. In the fields hundreds of workers cleared irrigation channels, raised and mended terrace walls, and sowed corn and a host of exotic crops. These provided Huayna Capac with bountiful harvests and enough corn beer to entertain his subjects royally during Cusco's annual festivals.

Quispiguanca was not the only spectacular estate. Inca kings inherited little more than their titles, so each new sovereign built a city palace and country home for himself and his lineage shortly after assuming power. To date archaeologists and historians have located ruins of roughly a dozen royal estates built by at least six Inca kings.

Even after these kings died, they remained the powers behind the throne. "The ancestors were a key element of Andean life," says Sonia Guillén, director of Peru's Museo Leymebamba. When Huayna Capac perished of a mysterious disease in Ecuador around 1527, retainers mummified his body and carried it back to Cusco. Members of the royal family frequently visited the deceased monarch, asking his advice on vital matters and heeding the replies given by an oracle sitting at his side. Years after his death, Huayna Capac remained the owner of Quispiguanca and the surrounding estate. Indeed, royal tradition dictated that its harvest keep his mummy, servants, wives, and descendants in style for eternity.

It was during the rainy season in 1533, an auspicious time for a coronation, and thousands of people were packed into the main plaza of Cusco to celebrate the arrival of their new teenage king. Two years earlier, amid a civil war, foreign invaders had landed in the north. Metal-clad and bearing lethal new weapons, the Spaniards had journeyed to the northern Inca town of Cajamarca, where they took prisoner the Inca king, Atahuallpa. Eight months later, they executed their royal captive, and in 1533 their leader, Francisco Pizarro, picked a young prince, Manco Inca Yupanqui, to rule as a puppet king.

In the far distance, voices of the young king's bearers echoed through the streets, singing songs of praise. Falling silent, celebrants watched the royal teenager enter the square, accompanied by the mummies of his ancestors, each richly attired and seated on a splendid litter. The wizened kings and their consorts reminded all that Manco Inca descended from a long line of kings. Rulers of other realms might content themselves with displaying carved or painted images of their glorious ancestors. The Inca kings went one better, displaying the expertly preserved bodies of their forefathers.

In the months that followed, the Spanish invaders seized the palaces of Cusco and the spacious country estates and took royal women as mistresses and wives. Incensed, Manco Inca rebelled and in 1536 tried to drive them from the realm. When his army suffered defeat, he fled Cusco for the jungle city of Vilcabamba, from which he launched guerrilla attacks. The Spanish wouldn't subdue the stronghold until 1572.

In the turmoil of those decades, the Inca's sprawling network of roads, storehouses, temples, and estates began slowly falling into ruin. As the empire crumbled, the Inca and their descendants made a valiant attempt to preserve the symbols of imperial authority. Servants collected the precious bodies of the sacred kings and concealed them around Cusco, where they were worshipped in secret—and in defiance of Spanish priests. In 1559 Cusco's chief magistrate, Juan Polo de Ondegardo, resolved to stamp out this idolatry. He launched an official search for the bodies, questioning hundreds. With this information he tracked down and seized the remains of 11 Inca kings and several queens.

For a time colonial officials in Lima displayed the mummies of Pachacutec, Huayna Capac, and two other royals as curiosities in the Hospital of San Andrés in Lima, a facility that admitted only European patients. But the damp coastal climate wreaked havoc with the bodies. So Spanish officials buried the greatest of the Inca kings in secrecy in Lima, far from the Andes and the people who loved and worshipped them.

In 2001 Brian Bauer and two Peruvian colleagues, historian Teodoro Hampe Martínez and archaeologist Antonio Coello Rodríguez, went looking for the mummies of the Inca kings, hoping to right a historic wrong and restore to Peruvians an important part of their cultural heritage. "Can you imagine," Bauer asks, "how American citizens would feel if the British had taken the bodies of the first several presidents back to London during the War of 1812?"

For months Bauer and his colleagues pored over old architectural plans of the Hospital of San Andrés, now a girls' school in central Lima. Eventually they identified several possibilities for the burial site of Pachacutec and Huayna Capac. Using ground-penetrating radar, they scanned the likeliest areas, turning up what appeared to be a vaulted underground crypt. Bauer and his Peruvian teammates were thrilled.

When the archaeologists finally dug down and opened the door of the dusty chamber, they were crestfallen. The crypt lay empty. Quite possibly, says Bauer, workmen removed the contents while renovating the hospital after a severe earthquake. Today no one can say where Peru's greatest kings lie. Concludes Bauer sadly, "The fate of the royal Inca mummies remains unknown."

Vancouver-based author Heather Pringle specializes in archaeological subjects. Photographer Robert Clark is a regular contributor to the Geographic.
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