In 1890, the U.S. consul to Chile donated the mummy of an 8-year-old Inca girl to the Michigan State University Museum. Buried in a stone tomb alongside such tokens as sandals, beads and feathers, the girl—known as Ñusta, or “Princess” in the indigenous Quechua language—lived in the Andean highlands during the second half of the 15th century.
Some 500 years after her demise, her remains have finally come home: As Carlos Valdez reports for the Associated Press, the museum returned the mummy to Bolivia earlier this month in what officials say is the first instance of archaeologically significant human remains being repatriated to the South American country.
According to Ancient Origins’ Ashley Cowie, researchers are set to conduct a new round of testing on Ñusta this November; until then, her remains will be preserved in a refrigerated chamber at the National Archaeology Museum in La Paz. The mummy’s accompanying funerary objects, including a small clay jar, pouches, maize, beans, grasses and coca, will be exhibited in the Bolivian city through November 2.
Valdez notes that Ñusta, who boasts seemingly just-combed braids and a dress made of llama or alpaca wool, is incredibly well preserved. Although her name translates to princess, William A. Lovis, the emeritus professor who spearheaded repatriation efforts, says scholars remain uncertain whether she was actually royal. (David Trigo, head of the National Archaeology Museum, characterizes Ñusta as an “important member of her ethnic group” because she was buried in a type of tomb, or “chullpa,” typically reserved for the elite.) To answer this question, as well as others associated with the girl's cultural background and the circumstances of her death, researchers will need to perform additional DNA studies on the mummy.
“It’s possible that the girl was an important person and that the objects placed with her had as much sacred importance as they had a useful purpose,” Lovis tells the AP. “Another possibility is that her death was an Inca sacrifice to appease or an offer to Inca deities.”
Per a 2018 report by the Lansing State Journal’s RJ Wolcott and Sarah Lehr, Ñusta is believed to have been a member of the ethnic Aymara group, which was under the Inca Empire’s jurisdiction at the time of her death. Radiocarbon testing of maize found in the girl’s grave dates her death to roughly 1470.
In a blog post, Lovis explains that the mummy was prominently exhibited in the MSU Museum until the early 1970s, when he and other curators, cognizant of changing “societal sentiments toward the display of human remains,” recommended she be taken off display. Although Lovis attempted to generate interest in further analysis of Ñusta’s remains, he was unsuccessful.
“I came to the conclusion that, if nobody was going to be doing any work with either the artifacts or the humans remains and if we were not going to display the human remains, it would be better served to return them to Bolivia,” the anthropologist said speaking with the Lansing State Journal.
In addition to leading the repatriation project, Lovis collaborated with scientists from institutions including Idaho State University, the University of New Hampshire and Pennsylvania State University to create an archive of “photographic and minimally-invasive documentation” of the mummy. This research, according to an ISU press release, involved reconstructing Ñusta’s diet and migration by conducting isotopic analysis of her hair, examining health through the state of microscopic tooth structures, and searching for signs of existing trauma.
Moving forward, Trigo told the Lansing State Journal, researchers plan on more thoroughly assessing the mummy’s physical condition, as well as the various accoutrements with which she was buried.
“With a patrimonial object like this," he said, "it's important that it's accessible to the public in some way.”