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Who lives in Machu Picchu? DNA analysis shows surprising diversity in the ancient Inca palace

People from all over the empire that ruled South America until the arrival of the Spanish came to the temple at Machu Picchu for a kind of life dedicated to the Inca religion

By Roberta Davidson, PhD student in genetic anthropology, University of Adelaide

At the top of the mountains in the southern highlands of Peru stands the 15th century wonder of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu. Today, the citadel is a global tourist attraction and an icon of Latin America's pre-colonial history - but in the past it was the royal palace of Caesar.

Our international team of researchers has uncovered the amazing genetic diversity hidden in the ancient remains of those who lived at Machu Picchu. We detail our findings in the study published today In the journal Science Advances.

The mysterious remains of a royal site

The Inca Empire once controlled a vast area of ​​2 million square kilometers across the breathtaking Andes mountain range in South America. It was established in 1438 by the first ruler,Pachacuti Inca YupanquiAnd reached its peak in 1533, before the colonization by the Spaniards.

At the heart of the empire was the capital city of Cusco, and near it was the royal palace of Pachacuti, Machu Picchu.

The royal family and guests visited Machu Picchu during the dry season of May to October to party, dance, sing and hunt. Although these elite Incas were buried in Cuzco upon their death, the palace was maintained year-round by several hundred servants who lived there. These servants were buried in cemeteries outside the palace walls.

Following Spanish colonization, knowledge of Machu Picchu was lost to the Western world until it was rediscovered by adventurers in the early 20th century.

In 1912  Documented by the Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition 174 details buried on the site. These graves were often shallow graves, or hidden under large rocks or natural rocks.

While grave goods were missing from many of the graves, ceramic objects were discovered buried alongside several people. These paint a vivid picture of cultural diversity, with styles from the coastal and northern regions of Peru, as well as the highlands of Bolivia near Lake Titicaca.

This was the first hint that Machu Picchu attracted people from all over the Inca Empire. He suggested that the servants who lived at Machu Picchu came from a variety of places, bringing ceramics from their homelands.

However, the objects could also have reached the area through trade. To find out where these people came from, we had to analyze their DNA.

New findings from ancient DNA

We sequenced ancient DNA from the remains of 68 individuals - 34 buried in Machu Picchu and 34 buried in Cusco. Using carbon dating, we dated the remains and discovered that some of these people were buried before the rise of the Pachacuti and the Inca Empire.

We then compared their DNA to that of indigenous peoples living in the Andes today (past studies have found that these genetic lines continued without interruption During  2,000 The years  The latest) - as well as to "ancestors" from more distant regions in South America.

It is worth noting that these "ancestors" are based on DNA and do not necessarily coincide with the cultural identities of the peoples, although sometimes this is indeed the case.

Were the people buried in Machu Picchu genetically similar to those who lived in the area even before Pachacuti's reign? Or were they related to ancestors from further afield?

If this is true, we could safely assume that they (or their parents) came to Machu Picchu from distant lands.

Journey to a life of slavery

Of all the DNA samples we analyzed, we found that 17 people had ancestry from one of the distant sources tested (on the map below). These included all of Peru's coastal and highland regions, as well as the Amazonian regions of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

This map of South America shows different genetic ancestries represented in different regions. The black line shows the full extent of the Inca Empire, while the inset shows Machu Picchu and other royal sites. Salazar et al., 2023 Provided by author.
This map of South America shows different genetic ancestries represented in different regions. The black line shows the full extent of the Inca Empire, while the inset shows Machu Picchu and other royal sites. M.Salazar et al., 2023. Provided by the author.

Only seven of those buried were of ancestry that could be linked to the vast southern highlands of Peru, home to Machu Picchu and Cusco. However, we cannot confirm that they were local to Machu Picchu itself.

The remaining 13 individuals were of mixed ancestry, including from as far away as Brazil and Paraguay. They may have been descendants of people from different countries who met at Machu Picchu - or they may be related to as yet unknown South American ancestors.

As for close family relationships, we discovered only one pair: mother and daughter.

Amazingly, all people were buried together in the large cemeteries, regardless of their origin. This could imply that they were considered equal in status to each other, which in turn would indicate that they were born elsewhere and arrived at Machu Picchu independently, occasionally forming relationships and having children.

It is likely that these people were of class  of "chosen women" in the name acllacona, and a similar class of men called yanacona. Individuals in these groups were selected from their homes at an early age and regularly assigned to state, aristocratic, or religious service.

After reaching Machu Picchu, they would spend the rest of their lives in the service of the royal estate.

Although we do not know how much (if any) coercion was involved in the process of these people arriving at Machu Picchu, the analysis of the bones suggests that they lived a comfortable life. Many of them lived to old age and showed no signs of malnutrition, disease or injuries from wars or hard work.

A hotspot of diversity

It is important to note that the human remains we found that predated the Inca Empire did not exhibit high levels of diversity. This suggests that it was indeed the establishment of the Inca Empire that led people from afar to Machu Picchu.

Furthermore, our examination of people from Cusco showed less diversity than at Machu Picchu, but more than other sites in the area. This is probably because the vast mountainous region had a long history of interactions between different peoples before the rise of the Inca Empire.

Our findings paint a compelling picture of Machu Picchu as a true hotspot of diversity within the Inca imperial realm – and single it out as a culturally rich center within the ancient landscape.

For an article in The Conversation

More of the topic in Hayadan:


  1. Proofreading is needed for the paragraph "new findings from ancient DNA".

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