DNA reveals diverse community in Lost City of the Incas

Ancient DNA from Machu Picchu in Peru has for the first time been analysed to find out where the people who lived there 500 years ago came from within the Inca Empire.

Machu Picchu sits 2,430 metres above sea level on the eastern slopes of the Andes mountain ranges as they trickle into the Amazon Basin. The UNESCO World Heritage site holds about 200 structures and covers 32,592 hectares. It was built in the 15th century but was abandoned in the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca Empire.

It was not until 1911 when the site became widely known to the outside world.

Like other royal estates around the world, Machu Picchu was not just home to the society’s elite. Genetic testing on individuals buried at the site now gives a glimpse into who the people who lived and worked in the Inca citadel 500 years ago.

“It’s telling us, not about elites and royalty, but lower status people,” says co-author Jason Nesbitt, an associate professor of archaeology at Tulane University School of Liberal Arts in New Orleans, US. “These were burials of the retainer population.”

The results of the analysis are published in Science Advances.

Researchers compared the DNA from remains of 34 individuals buried at Machu Picchu to that of other Incan citizens from throughout the empire, as well as some modern genomes from South America.

The analysis revealed that the workers in Machu Picchu came from throughout the Incan Empire. Some were from as far away as Amazonia, in the empire’s eastern quarter. Few shared DNA, showing they likely came to Machu Picchu alone, rather than as part of a family or community group.

“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,” Nesbitt says.

The study reinforces historical documentation and archaeological studies of the artifacts found around the burial sites, which all point to a diverse community of citizens in the “Lost City of the Incas.”

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