Ancient DNA reveals diverse community in Inca Empire

A recent study published in Science Advances, has used ancient DNA to uncover the origins of workers who were buried more than 500 years ago within the Inca Empire, specifically at the site of Machu Picchu.

Led by Jason Nesbitt, an associate professor of archaeology at Tulane University School of Liberal Arts, the researchers conducted genetic testing on individuals interred at Machu Picchu to gain deeper insights into the lives and identities of its inhabitants.

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Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Cusco region of Peru once served as a royal estate for the Inca Empire. Machu Picchu also hosted elite members of Inca society and their attendants and workers, many of whom resided within the estate throughout the year.

Contrary to assumptions, this study, bolstered by DNA evidence, has finally confirmed the diverse backgrounds of these residents. As Nesbitt puts it, the findings provide crucial insights into the lives of the “retainer population” and are a window into the world of lower-status individuals rather than just focusing on elites and royalty.

The DNA analysis conducted in this study operates similarly to contemporary genetic ancestry kits. By comparing the DNA of 34 individuals buried at Machu Picchu with that of people from various regions within the Inca Empire and some modern genomes from South America, the researchers aimed to determine the level of genetic relatedness among them.

The results of the DNA analysis unveiled that these individuals hailed from different parts of the Inca Empire, with some originating from as far as Amazonia. Interestingly, there was minimal shared DNA among them, suggesting that they were brought to Machu Picchu individually, rather than being part of familial or community groups. This finding provides valuable insights into the diverse origins of the people who once inhabited this extraordinary site.

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According to Nesbitt: “Now, of course, genetics doesn’t translate into ethnicity or anything like that,” said Nesbitt of the results, “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 DNA analysis supports historical documentation and archaeological studies of the artifacts found associated with the burials.

This study is part of a larger movement in archaeology to combine traditional archaeological techniques with new technologies and scientific analyses. This combination of fields leads to a more complete understanding of the discoveries made.

Tulane University

Header Image Credit : Shutterstock

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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