Machu Picchu’s far-flung residents

Royal retainers may have been sent from all over to inhabit the lofty Inca site

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 High in Peru’s Andes, the skeletons of people buried at the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu tell a tale of displacement and devoted service. A new chemical analysis of these bones supports the previously postulated idea that Inca kings used members of a special class of royal retainers from disparate parts of the empire to maintain and operate the site, which served as a royal estate.

Dramatic differences in the remains’ ratios of certain chemical isotopes that collect in bone indicate that Machu Picchu’s permanent residents spent their early lives in varied regions east or southeast of the site, say anthropologist Bethany Turner of GeorgiaStateUniversity in Atlanta and her colleagues. Some Machu Picchu inhabitants had emigrated from spots along the central South American coast, while others hailed from valleys high in the Andes.

A ROYAL ASSIGNMENT A new analysis of human remains buried at Machu Picchu reinforces the idea that royal retainers from all over the Inca empire were the permanent inhabitants of the famous Peruvian site. Dhuss / iStockphoto

Inca royalty, who regularly visited the site, were not buried at Machu Picchu. They were buried at nearby Cuzco, the capital of the empire.

The Inca empire ran from 1438 to 1532. It arose in highland Peru and extended to parts of modern Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. Machu Picchu was built around 1450 and was inhabited until 1570, after Spanish conquest but amid ongoing conflicts with the newcomers.

In an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science, Turner’s team says that widely distributed geographic origins for Machu Picchu’s population fit with the notion that retainers, known as yanacona, were sent to the royal estate from all corners of the realm.

“This would have made for an interesting dynamic in the Machu Picchu population, as its members may have had little in common besides their service to the Inca elite,” Turner says. Immigrants brought a variety of customs, traditions and dialects to the site, in her view.

Most researchers believe the royal retainers’ duties included performing agricultural work on royal estates, attending to nobles on expeditions and military campaigns, conducting administrative work and even serving as provincial officials. Most yanacona were men.

About half of the Machu Picchu skeletons came from females. According to Turner, these women may have been spouses of yanacona or perhaps women who were selected by Inca nobility to weave cloth, brew beer from maize and serve as wives in arranged marriages, as described in Spanish historical accounts, Turner suggests.

YaleUniversity anthropologist Richard Burger says that the new study strengthens an argument he advanced in 2003, based on some of the same skeletons that Turner’s team analyzed. He hypothesized that Machu Picchu was run by royal retainers transferred from many parts of the Inca empire. He and his coworkers observed considerable variation in the ratio of certain carbon and nitrogen isotopes in 59 of 177 skeletons that had been excavated from three caves at Machu Picchu.

Turner’s group analyzed oxygen, strontium and lead isotopes in 74 of the skeletons. The researchers extracted isotopes from tooth enamel layers that develop during childhood. Wide variations in the isotopic composition of these substances suggest that individuals at Machu Picchu grew up in a variety of geological contexts with distinct water sources and available foods.

Strontium and lead composition of tooth enamel from four local animals excavated at Machu Picchu, including a rabbit and two large rodents, differed markedly from corresponding values for the human skeletons. Oxygen composition of water from two natural springs at Machu Picchu also looked unlike oxygen values for the Inca residents.

Isotopic variation among individuals at Machu Picchu argues against the possibility that they were drawn from a local peasant population or represented groups of servants dispatched to the site from one or two outside areas, Turner says. Locals would have shared an isotopic signature similar to that of local animals, whereas imported servants would have clustered into one or two isotopic categories.

Without more extensive data on isotopic compositions associated with living in specific parts of the Andes highlands and coastal regions, it’s hard to pin down precisely where Machu Picchu’s residents came from, Turner notes.

Earlier clues had also pointed toward disparate origins for Machu Picchu’s residents, Burger says. Different individuals had been buried with pottery made in various parts of the Inca empire and their skulls display regionally distinctive characteristics.

“Royal retainers at Machu Picchu seem to have been a protected population,” Burger says. Their bones show no signs of intense physical work, physical beatings or war wounds.

Much of the pottery in the Machu Picchu graves had been repaired, apparently because it was cherished by royal retainers as keepsakes of the home regions and extended families that they had been forced to leave behind, Burger says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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