On a Peruvian island in the middle of the Lake Titicaca, hundreds of people stand in silence
as a priest recites a prayer. Descended in part from Inca colonists sent here more than 500 years
ago, they keep many of the old ways. They weave colored cloth, speak the traditional language
of the Inca, and work their fields as they have for centuries. Today, they are celebrating the
festival of Santiago, or St. James. Walking behind the priest, several people carry a statue of the
saint, just as the Inca once held the mummies of their kings.
For many years, there were few clues to give us insight into the lives of Inca kings. The
Inca had no system of writing so we have no written records of life back then. Any portraits
that Inca artists may have made were lost. The royal palaces of Cusco, the Inca capital, fell
swiftly to the Spanish, and a new colonial city buried or obliterated the Inca past. Yet
archaeologists are now making up for lost time—near Cusco, they are discovering thousands
of previously unknown sites. These new and exciting discoveries are shedding new light on the
In the 1980s, most archaeologists believed that a young leader named Pachacuti Inca
Yupanqui (also known as Pachacutec) became the first Inca king in the early 1400s. But Brian
Bauer, an archaeologist from the University of Illinois at Chicago, believed the Inca dynasty
had far deeper roots. With the aid of a colleague and several assistants, they discovered
thousands of previously unknown Inca sites in the Cusco Valley. The new evidence revealed
for the first time how an Inca state had risen much earlier than previously believed—sometime
between 1200 and 1300. The ancient rulers of the region had fallen by 1100, in part because of
a severe drought.
Local leaders battled over scarce water and led their people into neighboring villages in
search of food. The frightened villagers fled to cold, windy hideouts nearly 4,000 meters up in
the mountains. But in the fertile valley around Cusco, Inca villagers stood their ground. Instead
of fighting among themselves, these villages united into a small state capable of defending
themselves. Between 1150 and 1300, the Inca around Cusco capitalized on a warming trend.
As temperatures climbed, farmers moved up the mountains, creating crop fields by cutting
green terraces into the cliffs, and subsequently enjoying large and successful corn harvests.
Inca kings began eyeing the resources of others. Local leaders in the valleys fell one by
one until there was only one mighty state and one capital: the sacred city of Cusco. The kings
next set their sights on the lands around Lake Titicaca. Sometime after 1400, the same
Pachacutec set his sights on the south. He successfully attacked the area in the mid-1400s. In
the years that followed, Pachacutec and his sons subdued all the southern rulers.
Under Inca rule, Andean civilization flourished. Inca engineers transformed roads into
interconnected highways. Inca farmers grew some 70 different native crops, often storing three
to seven years’ worth of food in vast storehouses. And Inca builders created architectural
wonders like Machu Picchu, which continue to awe visitors today.
By the time the Inca king Huayna Capac took power around 1493, little seemed beyond
the reach of the Inca. For his new capital in Ecuador, 4,500 people carried immense stone blocks
all the way from Cusco—a distance of nearly 1,600 kilometers.
In the Inca heartland, a small army of people built an estate and palace for Huayna Capac
and his family. To date, archaeologists have located the ruins of roughly a dozen similar estates
built by at least six Inca kings. But things changed in 1531. Foreign invaders had landed in the
north, amid a civil war. Covered in metal and carrying lethal new weapons, the Spanish easily
overcame the Incas and took prisoner the Inca king, Atahuallpa. Eight months later, they
executed their royal captive.
In 1534, a young prince, Manco Inca Yupanqui, was picked by Spanish leader Francisco
Pizarro and allowed to rule as a puppet king. Manco Inca was then only 15 years old and was
easily controlled. He thought the Spanish were gods. However, in the months that followed, the
Spanish seized the palaces of Cusco. Manco Inca tried desperately to drive them out, but his
army suffered defeat.
Over the next few decades, the Inca’s network of roads, temples, and estates began falling
into disrepair. In 2001, Brian Bauer and two Peruvian colleagues went looking for the mummies
of these Inca kings, hoping to restore to Peruvians an important part of their cultural heritage.
Bauer identified several possibilities for the burial site of Pachacutec and Huayna Capac. Using
special equipment, they scanned the likeliest areas and found what appeared to be an
underground tomb. Bauer and his Peruvian teammates were thrilled. But when the
archaeologists finally dug down and opened the door of the dusty chamber, they found it empty.
Today no one can say where Peru’s greatest kings lie. Concludes Bauer sadly, “The fate of the
royal Inca mummies remains unknown.”