The Great Inca Rebellion

Grave Analysis

Many of the later burials found in the Puruchuco cemetery on the outskirts of Lima, Peru—as seen in "The Great Inca Rebellion"—showed signs of having died extremely violent deaths, probably during the Siege of Lima by the Inca. Who were these ill-fated individuals? As a bioarcheologist, I have been examining the remains of many of these people. Here, learn what I was able to determine about one victim's sex, age, and other characteristics by analyzing that person's well-preserved skeleton.—Melissa Scott Murphy

Grave image 1 2 3 4 5 6 7


1. Age
Bioarcheologists estimate the age of child and subadult skeletons based on the maturation of the skeleton and the development of the teeth. As seen here, the growth plate (epiphysis) of her shin bone (tibia) has not fused to the long bone shaft. The same crack-like space appears in the upper arm bone (humerus), seen just above the skull in the main image. In most populations, these bones fuse between the ages of 13 and 17. I'm guessing this girl was between 14 and 17 years of age when she died—shockingly young to perish on a battlefield.


2. Sex
The pelvis in men and women features subtle differences, largely due to the fact that women give birth. Bioarcheologists can use this disparity to estimate and/or determine the sex of human skeletal remains. This young individual was probably female, because her pelvis exhibits more female traits than male ones. One such trait is the greater width of the sciatic notch (see image); in males, it is narrower. Several other female skeletons turned up in Puruchuco, indicating that some Inca women fought alongside their men in the Siege of Lima.


3. Head wound
Many of the atypical burials recovered from the Puruchuco cemetery exhibit perimortem (at or around the time of death) trauma to their skulls, which likely caused or contributed to their violent deaths. For this young woman, severe blunt-force trauma caused the fracture to the left side of her skull. In her reconstructed skull, four fractures radiate out from the site of impact, which is also surrounded by concentric fractures. Her skeleton showed no other injuries. The woman obviously received a massive and lethal blow, perhaps from an indigenous stone club.


4. Teeth
All of the victim's teeth were recovered, and her dental health was good. She did not possess any cavities or dental infections, and her teeth showed only slight wear. However, some of her teeth were chipped when she sustained the blow to her cranium, and a fracture radiating across her upper and lower jaws likely also occurred during her final moments. Though not visible here, her third molars, aka her wisdom teeth, have not erupted into her dentition yet, another indication of her tender age.



5. Hands and feet
The only bones from her skeleton that the archeological team did not succeed in recovering were some of the small bones (phalanges) of the hands and feet that make up the ends of the fingers and toes. Whoever buried her placed one of her hands on her waist and the other near her chest. Both of her feet were tucked against her legs.

Burial position  

6. Burial position
In classic Inca burials, including the more typical Puruchuco burial seen here, the dead were placed in a crouched, sitting position facing the rising sun, a symbol of rebirth. By contrast, many of the atypical burials in Puruchuco were buried facing up or even west. When interred, this woman, for instance, was placed in a semi-flexed position on her left side. The lack of a traditional burial hints at a possible delayed and rushed interment by a defeated and dispirited people.

Mortuary offerings  

7. Mortuary offerings
Classic Inca burials from Puruchuco revealed offerings both within and outside of their cloth wrappings, as seen here. Inside were often gourd containers, textiles, foodstuffs, and weaving baskets, while external offerings included Spondylus shell, ceramics, wooden canes, and weaving implements. The burial of the woman in the main image is remarkable for its total lack of any mortuary offerings. She was interred with a simple cloth wrapping called a tela, but nothing else. Perhaps war parties were still about, requiring a hasty and non-traditional burial.


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Melissa Scott Murphy is a bioarcheologist at Bryn Mawr College who has worked in Peru, Israel, and France. She appears in "The Great Inca Rebellion" as one of the experts working on the Puruchuco burials.

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