Machu Picchu: ancient DNA sheds new light on lost Inca city

Machu Picchu, a magnificent citadel located in the southern highlands of Peru, has long captivated the world with its mystical beauty and rich historical significance. Now a groundbreaking study published in the journal Science Advances has shed new light on the genetic diversity of the ancient inhabitants of this royal palace, revealing the tapestry of the Inca Empire like never before.

The Inca Empire, which covered an area of more than 2 million square kilometers, flourished in the Andes mountain range from 1438 to 1533. The pinnacle of the empire was the imperial capital of Cusco, where the legendary Pachacuti ruler Inca Yupanqui founded his magnificent palace, Machu Picchu. This architectural marvel served as a refuge for royalty and guests who gathered here during the dry season for extravagant festivities and rituals.

While the elite Incas rested in Cusco, Machu Picchu was permanently home to a small community of servants who cared for its preservation. These dedicated men were buried in cemeteries outside the palace walls, and their final resting place was shrouded in mystery.

In 1912, a Peruvian scientific expedition from Yale University made the surprising discovery of 174 burials scattered throughout Machu Picchu. These graves, often hidden beneath boulders or rock ledges, revealed tantalizing clues to the varied origins of the palace’s inhabitants. Ceramic artifacts found near some burials demonstrate a mosaic of cultural styles reflecting influences from the coastal and northern regions of Peru, as well as the highlands around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.

These artifacts point to a complex network of connections spanning the entire Inca Empire. However, to truly unravel this complex tapestry, our team of international researchers turned to the power of ancient DNA analysis.

Through careful DNA sequencing of 68 individuals – 34 buried at Machu Picchu and 34 buried in Cusco – we traveled back in time, tracing the genetic footprints of these ancient inhabitants. Carbon dating allowed us to determine the age of the remains, revealing that some people were buried before the rise of Pachacuti and the Inca Empire.

Comparison of the ancient DNA with that of the modern indigenous population of the Andes revealed a remarkable continuity of genetic lineages over two millennia. These results not only confirm the resilience of these ancestral communities, but also shed light on the diverse origins of those who called Machu Picchu their home.

Our analysis also went beyond the Andes to reveal genetic links to remote regions of South America. By comparing ancient DNA with the ancestors of different indigenous groups, we have gained insight into the complex network of migrations and interpenetrations that shaped the Inca Empire.

Dr. Maria Salazar, lead author of the study, emphasizes the importance of the findings, “The genetic diversity we found at Machu Picchu testifies to the extensive network of trade and cultural exchange that characterized the Inca Empire. It reveals the complex tapestry of human migration and interaction that has shaped the history and heritage of Latin America.”

This groundbreaking research not only deepens our understanding of Inca civilization, but also underscores the importance of preserving and studying our shared human heritage. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of our past, Machu Picchu stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of an empire that once dominated the heart of the Andes.

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