Servants at Machu Picchu Came From Distant Corners of the Inca Empire

The city’s servant class was a genetically diverse community, according to a new study of ancient DNA

Machu Picchu
Researchers think that servants maintained the site year round, while royals only came to Machu Picchu during the dry season. Pedro Szekely via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Who lived at Machu Picchu? 

The Inca city in Peru is one of the most recognizable historical sites in the world. Built in the mid-15th century, it served as a royal estate for the rulers of the Inca Empire before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. But while researchers have long been fascinated by the site, they know little about the lives of its residents—especially its servant class.

Now, in a study published in the journal Science Advances on July 26, scientists shed new light on the question of where Machu Picchu’s residents came from.

And the answer, they found, is everywhere.

“Our analyses show that the population at Machu Picchu was highly heterogeneous, with individuals exhibiting genetic ancestries associated with groups from regions throughout the Inca Empire including the coast, highlands and Amazonia,” says study co-author Richard Burger, an archaeologist at Yale, in a statement from the university.

While royals only came to Machu Picchu during the dry season, a community of servants lived at the site year round. Researchers analyzed ancient DNA from the remains of 34 of these servants buried at the site, along with another 34 skeletons from the Inca capital city of Cusco.

At its peak, the vast Inca Empire stretched for thousands of miles along the west coast of South America. The researchers found DNA connected to locations throughout the empire. Additionally, “about a third of them have DNA reflecting significant amounts of Amazonian ancestry,” says lead author Lucy Salazar, an archaeologist at Yale, in the university’s statement.

Most of these individuals were not related to each other, indicating that they didn’t come to Machu Picchu with their families. The researchers found only one pair of first-degree relatives, most likely a mother and a daughter.

According to the researchers, many people were likely taken from regions conquered by the Inca Empire and brought to Machu Picchu. After arriving, “they would have spent the rest of their lives serving the royal estate,” study co-author Roberta Davidson, a PhD candidate in genetic anthropology at Australia’s University of Adelaide, writes in the Conversation.

“​​Although we don’t know how much (if any) coercion was involved in the process of these people coming to Machu Picchu, analyses of the bones suggest they lived comfortable lives,” she writes. “Many lived to old age and showed no signs of malnutrition, disease or injury from warfare or heavy labor.”

Davidson adds that human remains predating the Inca Empire don’t show similar levels of diversity, suggesting that “it was indeed the establishment of the Inca Empire that led people from far and wide to Machu Picchu.”

Anthropologist Ken-ichi Shinoda, director of the National Museum of Nature and Science of Japan, who was not involved in the study, had previously examined individuals buried at non-elite sites around Machu Picchu and found less genetic diversity, per Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove.

“Considering that Machu Picchu was a significant city at the time, it is not surprising that people from various Andean regions gathered here,” Shinoda tells the publication.

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