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By Guillermo A. CockPhotographs by Ira Block

Racing against developers, archaeologists save a treasure: Peru's largest cache of mummies from a single time period along with weapons, ceramics, and elegant textiles.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In a sprawling shantytown called Tupac Amaru on the outskirts of Lima, children play in the dust of ages. Beneath their feet, preserved by the bone-dry soil, lies one of the largest Inca cemeteries yet found in Peru. This pre-Hispanic site, known to archaeologists as Puruchuco-Huaquerones, dates from the Late Horizon (1438 to 1532). Though it has been designated a national monument, my team of scientists has had to race against bulldozers to pull the past out from under the burgeoning present. Beneath the schoolyard alone, one of 15 areas examined in three years, we've salvaged more than 120 mummy bundles (layers of cloth encasing a body and personal effects) typical of pre-Inca and Inca burials.

The story of how Tupac Amaru came to be is a common one in Peru. In 1989 some 340 families fleeing guerrilla activity in the highlands settled on this property, misled by land traffickers to believe they would soon be given title. Meanwhile, six feet (2 meters) under and defenseless against the sudden influx of sewage and water, the mummies were decomposing. Some squatters dug them up and burned them, hoping to avoid a scientific excavation that would delay town development.

Though much damage was done in subsequent years, the Peruvian Institute of Culture (INC) finally did request an archaeological evaluation of the area.  I arrived from Lima in 1999, tools and team in tow.  Not wanting to be relocated by the government, the townspeople—then more than 1,240 families—agreed to stop leveling the land and even scraped together money to help fund our work.  They hoped it would be a long-term investment, encouraging the government to give them what the traffickers couldn't; clear land titles and basic utilities.

At first the residents assumed we would loot the tombs or dig briefly and half-heartedly, pocketing leftover funds.  But we hired locals to help excavate, soon earning their trust.  In addition, the INC visited the site weekly.  In three field seasons we've removed, examined, and photographed more than 2,200 individuals of all ages and ranks buried within 75 years of one another.  At 20 acres (8 hectares) this is the second largest cemetery ever excavated in Peru (after Ancón) and the largest from a single time period. A local museum will ultimately display these cultural treasures.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Watch an animation of the unwrapping of a mummy bundle.

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View a documentary on the mummy bundles of Puruchuco.


Uncover photos, maps and more on Inca Mummies.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
At Puruchuco-Huaquerones, an Inca cemetery outside Lima, Peru, a mummy excavation is disturbing Inca spirits—at least according to local villagers. Just over 1,200 families dwell in Tupac Amaru, a shantytown alongside the site, and some blame archaeologists for the recent misfortune that has befallen the town, including the death of a young schoolboy. Digging up these spirits of the past will only harm the living, they argue. Though the chief archaeologist at the site, Guillermo "Willy" Cock, discounts these rumors (he thinks the deceased boy died of tuberculosis), some villagers remain unconvinced.

Willy himself had a fierce cough for months after he began handling the mummies. And when National Geographic photographer Ira Block arrived back home in New York City after completing his assignment for the story, he too had a bacterial cough, which he treated with prescribed medication. Can this be a case of the notorious curse of the mummy—or just bad sanitation?

People have been saying for ages that angry spirits arise from such excavations. The most famous example is the official opening of King Tut's tomb in 1923, after which the financier of the project, as well as some others associated with the discovery, died prematurely. But archaeologists excavating the Inca site in Peru believe the amount of water (60,000 gallons/260,000 liters) and waste dumped by villagers each day causes rampant bacteria to fester in the ground.

Willy isn't spooked. "Not one of us is going to die because of these excavations. We may die because we don't use a mask and have contact with contaminated material." (The team members do use masks when they inspect the mummy bundles in the lab.) "My cough was from the bacteria associated with the mummy bundles and the soil at the site, which is highly contaminated. There's no sewage system in the town, so you can imagine what's in the soil."

Whether it's a poor sewage system or angry spirits affecting those in Tupac Amaru, dedicated archaeologists will continue to seek answers to the extraordinary Inca past.

—Christy Ullrich

Did You Know?

Related Links
Ira Block Photography
Learn more about National Geographic photographer Ira Block and browse through his online photo library.

The Textile Museum
The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., celebrates the textile arts, including Inca fabrics. Visitors can learn how clothing affects the way people live.

The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (El Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco)
Dedicated to preserving and reviving the rich textile traditions of the Andes, the center aims to instill in Peruvian children the joy, sense of identity, and pride that spinning and weaving can bring to their lives.


Barron's Educational Series: Inca Life: Early Civilizations. Ticktock Publishing Ltd., 2000.

Cobo, Father Bernabe. Inca Religion & Customs. University of Texas Press, 1990.

Kendall, Ann. Everyday Life of the Incas. B. T. Basford Lt., London, 1973.

Malpass, Michael. Daily Life in the Inca Empire. Greenwood Press, 1996.

Menzel, Dorothy. Pottery Style and Society in Ancient Peru: Art as a Mirror of History of the Ica Valley, 1350-1570. University of California Press, 1976.

Moseley, Michael. The Incas and their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru. Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Rowe, John, and Dorothy Menzel, Ed. Peruvian Archaeology. Peek Publication, 1967.


NGS Resources
Donnan, Christopher B. "Moche Burials Uncovered," National Geographic (March 2001), 58-73.

Muller, Karin. Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey Into an Ancient Empire. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Roberts, David. "Iron Man of the Andes," National Geographic Adventure (January/February 2000), 72-81, 121-123.

Reinhard, Johan. "At 22,000 Feet Children of Inca Sacrifice Found Frozen in Time," National Geographic (November 1999), 36-55.

Reinhard, Johan. Discovering the Inca Ice Maiden: My Adventures on Ampato. National Geographic Books, 1998.

Reinhard, Johan. "Research Update: New Inca Mummies," National Geographic (July 1998), 128-135.

Reinhard, Johan. "Sharp Eyes of Science Probe the Mummies of Peru," National Geographic (January 1997), 36-43.

Reinhard, Johan. "Peru's Ice Maidens: Unwrapping the Secrets," National Geographic (June 1996), 62-81.

McCarry, John. "Peru Begins Again," National Geographic (May 1996), 2-35.

Reinhard, Johan. "Sacred Peaks of the Andes," National Geographic (March 1992), 84-111.

Arden, Harvey. "The Two Souls of Peru," National Geographic (March 1982), 284-321.

McIntyre, Loren. "The Lost Empire of the Incas," National Geographic (December 1973), 729-787.


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