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The Great Inca Rebellion

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: June 26, 2007

Through a mix of crime-lab science, archeology, and history, this NOVA/National Geographic special presents new evidence that is changing what we know about the final days of the once-mighty Inca Empire. This probing story of archeological discovery begins in a cemetery crammed with skeletons that offer tantalizing clues about a fierce 16th-century battle between warriors of the collapsing Inca Empire and Spanish invaders. Now, the long-accepted account of a swift Spanish conquest of the Inca—achieved with guns, steel, and horses—is being replaced by a more complete story based on surprising new evidence, including what may be the first gunshot wound in the Americas.

The largest empire in pre-Columbian America, the Inca ruled the most advanced civilization in the New World. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Inca had built the breathtaking city of Machu Picchu, pioneered a sophisticated system of high-altitude highways, and forged luxurious treasures of gold (see Rise of the Inca). So how could a tiny Spanish army of gold-seeking adventurers bring the powerful Inca Empire, home to over 10 million people, so quickly to its knees?

According to traditional historical accounts, Francisco Pizarro and his band of fewer than 200 Spanish conquistadors, in search of treasure and power, vanquished the Inca emperor and his army in a bloody ambush in 1532. It was said that the Inca, overwhelmed by the Spaniards' horses and weapons, and vulnerable to the infectious diseases they carried, quickly succumbed and surrendered.

But the latest archeological findings and historical analysis from leading experts, like archeologist Guillermo Cock and ethnohistorian Maria Rostworowski, both Peruvians, support a different version of the story, one that historians have long suspected. Their field research, forensic science, and recently discovered documents suggest that it took the Spanish years, as well as the formation of military alliances with thousands of Indian mercenaries, to defeat the Inca Empire.

This program delves into the intriguing process of how science is helping to rewrite the history of the Spanish conquest. The story begins in Puruchuco, an Inca cemetery uncovered in the modern suburbs of Lima, where Guillermo Cock and his team of archeologists have found a strange group of more than 70 skeletons unlike any unearthed there before. Hastily buried in shallow graves, many of the corpses are shockingly mutilated, their bones crushed and marked with deep cuts, suggestive of battle injuries (see Grave Analysis). For Cock, these grim remains were an exhilarating find, providing fresh insight into the Incas' demise.

To confirm suspicions about how these warriors buried in Puruchuco had been killed, Cock approached forensic scientists at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven. One head wound was a perfectly round hole. Along its inner rim the forensic team identified fragments of iron, strongly suggesting that the hole was a bullet wound from a Spanish arquebus, a primitive but deadly gun. If true, it would be the first documented gunshot wound in the New World.

Combining these latest developments with newly explored 16th-century historical records, the film recreates an untold final chapter of the conquest. What emerges is a never-before-told account of a protracted and intensely brutal war in which the weakened Inca were forced to battle not only a small core of well-armed conquistadors but also a far larger supporting army of Indians who were key to turning the tide against them.


Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Inca skull

A cemetery containing burials from the last days of the Inca Empire tells a very different story of the Spanish Conquest than that told by the conquistadors. See an expert's analysis of one of those burials (above), whose well-preserved skeleton reveals horrific injuries.

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