DNA evidence finds burials of diverse populations from Inca Empire

New study analyzed the origins of individuals buried at Machu Picchu through genetic testing to understand the livelihood of diverse communities that lived in the area over 500 years ago.
Shubhangi Dua
Ruins of Inca empire city and Huayna Picchu mountain in sacred valley in Machu Picchu
Ruins of Inca empire city and Huayna Picchu mountain in sacred valley in Machu Picchu

Hermes Images/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images 

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited tourist spots in Peru. Renowned for its dry-stone walls, the religious site is presented as the symbol Inca Empire built around 1450 AD.

Recently, archaeologists from Tulane University conducted genetic testing on people buried at Machu Picchu in order to learn more about the people who lived and worked there.

Researchers used ancient DNA to uncover the buried individuals more than 500 years ago in the lost Incan Empire. 

DNA determination

They compared the DNA of 34 individuals buried at the site to individuals buried in the Inca Empire outside of Machu Picchu, including some modern genomes from South America, to see how closely related they might be.

According to the researchers' statement, the analysis revealed that individuals at Machu Picchu hailed from various regions within the Inca Empire, with some even originating from distant locations, including Amazonia. 

The findings further indicated that few individuals had genetic similarities, proposing that they arrived at Machu Picchu as separate individuals rather than being part of a family or community.

Archeologists also noted that even though Machu Picchu was a royal estate, it accommodated not only royalty and the elite but also attendants and workers. Many of these individuals lived within the estate year-round.

The study was able to ascertain the diversity of the worker's backgrounds through DNA testing. The statement said that these residents did not necessarily come from the local area.

Inca's distinct origins

Jason Nesbitt, associate professor of archaeology, said, “It’s telling us, not about elites and royalty, but lower status people. These were burials of the retainer population.”

He added, “Now, of course, genetics doesn’t translate into ethnicity or anything like that but that shows that they have distinct origins within different parts of the Inca Empire. The study does really reinforce a lot of other types of research that have been done at Machu Picchu and other Inca sites.”

The study results are in alignment with historical records and previous archaeological studies of the artifacts linked to the burials. 

The study stated, “It is one of the most well-known archaeological sites in the world and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. It was once part of the royal estate of the Inca Empire.”

Located high in the mountains in the region of Cusco, 2,430 m above sea level, UNESCO calls it the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height.

They stated, “Its giant walls, terraces, and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.”