The Fascinating Afterlife of Peru’s Mummies

From inside stone palaces and atop sacred mountaintops, the Inca dead continued to wield incredible power over the living

Ancient mummified bodies stand guard over windswept deserts near the Nazca and Ica mountain summits. © Charles Rennie/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

In 1533 the first Spaniards to reach Cusco, capital of the sprawling Inca Empire, discovered temples covered with gold plates, altars and fountains similarly glimmering and architecture whose stonework rivaled or surpassed anything comparable in Europe. But the greatest surprise came when two soldiers entered one well-constructed palace of a dead emperor and found that he and his deceased wife were—in the eyes of the Inca—still alive. 

In the palace’s inner sanctum they found an old woman wearing a gold mask, waving a fan to keep flies off the immobile pair. The couple were no longer breathing but sat upright, perfectly mummified. They and their attendants wanted for nothing: Family members interpreted their wishes and benefited from the wealth the dead still owned. During holy festivals the dead ancestors were
paraded behind the living emperor, their history and achievements adding to those of the living. 

Of this, the Spaniards would learn later. At the time, the soldiers deferred to the mummies’ power even as they defied it. The Spaniards took all the gold from the dead couple in front of them but incongruously, in a sign of respect, agreed to take their shoes off before doing so. Such was the power that the ancient Andean dead wielded over the living, even when the Spaniards would later deny—nervously—their continuing vitality. And if measured in the true wealth the mummies still possessed—which was the people they sustained and who looked up to them—the Inca emperors achieved more in death than most of us do in a lifetime.

In that, the Inca were hardly alone. In the Andes, mummification was a way of preserving power, not memorializing it. As the Spanish discovered, the western spine of South America might be the Earth’s largest natural laboratory for making mummies. The sands of its bone-dry coast, stretching from Peru down to northern Chile, first made them naturally. Then, 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro people learned to mummify their dead—2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians. Archaeologists now think that artificial mummification transformed loved ones into representatives of the community—ambassadors to the natural world who ensured the fertility of their descendants and their resources. It also may have been a way of understanding and ritualizing the everyday experience of encountering the dead, preserved and exposed by the passage of time in desert sands, on cold, dry peaks and across high plains. By the time Inca expansion began in the 1200s, highland Andean peoples were placing their ancestors in caves or similarly accessible burial towers—chullpas, whose location marked resources and divided territory. Whether permanently buried or temporarily interred, sometimes to be taken out and danced with, the mummies remained in an important way alive: like a dry seed, ready to bloom. Not dead but slowed, they brimmed with extraordinary invisible strength.

The oldest among them could also become huacas, holy things. The Inca Empire was able to spread as quickly as it did in part because of its fluency with this shared Andean idiom of divine ancestry. The Inca would honor—and control—their subjects’ most revered mummified dead by taking them to Cusco and worshipping them there. In exchange, subject lords were called upon to recognize that the Inca, as children of the sun, were the ancestors of all humanity; they were sometimes enjoined to offer their own sons and daughters to the empire, to be pampered, taught and then sacrificed and planted on sacred mountaintops, where they themselves were naturally preserved. 

The belief that the Inca emperor was still socially alive, and retained his or her possessions, also encouraged the empire’s spread across the Andes. When an Inca emperor died and was mummified—via the removal of organs, embalming and freeze-drying of the flesh—his heir might take on the imperial role but not his father’s possessions, which the mummy and his other children required for their sustenance. Thus, each Inca emperor went farther and farther afield to amass the glory that would redound upon his ancestral line, or panaca: venturing down to the coast, or into the jungle, to collect the fantastic gold, silver, shells, feathers and other sumptuous goods that the afterlife required. 

New Inca could not become emperors, however, unless they had the buy-in of Cusco’s older panacas, which similarly approved marriages and alliances on behalf of their own mummified founding ancestors. When the Spanish met the Inca Atahualpa in 1532, his empire stretched from present-day Bolivia and Chile as far north as Colombia, but conflict between Atahualpa and Cusco’s more powerful panacas left the empire open to conquest. After a period of wary cohabitation with the Spaniards in Cusco, the Inca nobles hid their mummies from the conquistadors—possibly after Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, looted one of the most august, Viracocha, and set him on fire. Viracocha’s panaca collected his ashes, which were still considered animate, and continued to venerate them in private, as did the other families with their own mummies. 

Spanish officials eventually realized the anti-colonial power the Inca dead embodied, and confiscated them in 1559. But even then, some Spaniards respected their aura. “They were carried wrapped in white sheets,” wrote El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spaniard and relative of an Inca emperor, “and the Indians knelt in the streets and squares, and bowed with tears and groans as they passed. Many Spaniards took off their caps, since they were royal bodies, and the Indians were more grateful than they could express for this attention.” Those Inca mummies that were still intact, which hadn’t been buried in Cusco’s churches despite their pagan status—a measure of Spanish respect in itself—were then carried down to Lima, where they were installed in one of the Spanish capital’s early hospitals, possibly to place them out of view of the crown’s Indian subjects. 

This early European encounter with the Andean afterlife left an extraordinary mark on what would later become anthropology and archaeology. Although the Spaniards attempted to halt the veneration of the more locally preserved dead with extirpating fire, they also captured detailed knowledge about the lives and beliefs of Andean peoples. The tenure of the mummies in Lima convinced the Spanish that they were not just preserved but embalmed—a complex process, worthy of respect for its use of valuable materia medica

By the early 17th century, that reputation had begun to travel. El Inca Garcilaso had speculated how his Inca ancestors’ bodies were preserved, and selections of his chronicle, available in English by 1625, helped established the Inca as champion embalmers. In the early 18th century, the English conjectured that the Inca dead were better preserved than the Egyptian pharaohs. By then, Spanish scholars were digging up and describing the less elite dead in the name of antiquarian research, yet always with reference to perfect Inca mummies that had vanished at the hands of the colonial invaders. Peruvian artists painted watercolors of excavated tombs in which the “ancient Peruvians” looked as if they were only sleeping.

The surviving imperial Inca mummies had by then disappeared, likely having been buried in the hospital where they were stored. In the 19th century it was occasionally rumored that one or more had been found, prompting calls for statues in their honor. Excavations in the 1930s turned up crypts and colonial remains. In the early 2000s a team led by Teodoro Hampe Martínez, Brian S. Bauer and Antonio Coello Rodríguez searched for the patio or corral where the mummies were viewed. They found archaeological remains pointing to the long indigenous occupation of Lima before it was Spanish, as well as colonial-era ceramics, animal and vegetal traces that helped explain changes in diet, and a curious vaulted structure that could have been a crypt. The mummies themselves remain elusive. 

Although the material wealth of the Inca mummies was melted down long ago, their inheritance has become the concerted research of sympathetic archaeologists, inspired by their story. After Peru’s independence was declared in 1821, the country’s first National Museum was founded in the former Chapel of the Inquisition; where inquisitors and scribes once sat, four pre-colonial mummies were set in place to observe the visitors who came to contemplate the Andean past. Scholars domestic and international began collecting the Peruvian dead during the 19th century, such that Andean mummies became a fixture of the many new natural history and anthropology museums, including the Smithsonian. In the 1920s, the indigenous Peruvian and Harvard-trained archaeologist Julio C. Tello discovered 429 mummy bundles belonging to the Paracas culture on Peru’s southern coast; several later traveled to North America and Spain. They were the ancestors of “Juanita,” the famously well-preserved girl sacrificed by the Inca on Mount Ampato high in the Andes, who toured the United States and Japan after her discovery in 1995.

There is still much that Peru’s dead can teach us. From 1999 to 2001, archaeologists led by Peru’s Guillermo Cock rescued mummies and remains from an Inca cemetery threatened by Lima’s urban development. They have used them to assess the health of indigenous Peruvians before and after the Inca conquest. Peruvian skulls at the Smithsonian are similarly studied to understand societal conditions and—in the case of trepanation, an ancient cranial surgery—healing. Juanita remains on view in the Peruvian city of Arequipa. The display challenges viewers to understand the state religion that required her sacrifice to the sun but also the vital afterlife her people may have imagined for her, bringing fertility to the empire.

The resources devoted to the preservation of Juanita and her cousins suggest that mummies still draw us close in distinct ways. Tello, now one of Peru’s great cultural heroes, treated the Paracas mummies he discovered as common ancestors—a Peruvian panaca reborn. At the museum he founded, and where he is buried, specialists took great pains to document and display mummy bundles they pulled from the sand, presenting them not as specimens but as individuals, wrapped in their community’s finest textiles. 

Once emperors—of land, of people, of their families—they are now emissaries from a hemisphere filled with indigenous societies that preceded modern America by millennia and whose present-day heirs remain vital and mobile. Two years after Tello’s death in 1947, one of the mummies he collected traveled to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a public unraveling, before being returned to Peru. A newspaper account reported then that customs officials—like the first Spaniards in Cusco—grappled with how to register an ancient visitor who in his afterlife was probably traveling farther than they ever would. They finally settled on “an immigrant—3,000 years old.” 

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