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Machu Picchu's Fascinating Genetic Tapestry
Unveiling the Surprising Diversity in the Ancient Inca Palace through DNA Analysis
Perched majestically atop the Andean mountains in Peru, Machu Picchu stands as a testament to the ancient Inca empire's grandeur. Once the royal palace of an emperor, this 15th-century wonder has captured the imagination of the world and become an iconic symbol of precolonial Latin American history. Recently, an international team of researchers has embarked on a quest to unravel the hidden genetic diversity concealed within the ancient remains of those who once called Machu Picchu home. Their groundbreaking findings, published in Science Advances, provide fascinating insights into the diverse tapestry of lives that thrived within this ancient citadel.
The Inca empire spanned a vast expanse of 2 million square kilometers across the breathtaking Andean landscape. Established in 1438 by the visionary ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the empire reached its zenith in 1533 before falling under the Spanish colonial rule. At the heart of this empire stood the splendid capital city of Cusco, with the majestic palace of Machu Picchu located nearby.
Machu Picchu was more than just a palace; it was a place of revelry and festivity where the Inca royal family and guests gathered during the dry season from May to October. While the elite Incas were buried in Cusco upon their demise, the palace was attended to year-round by several hundred servants who lived on-site. These devoted servants were laid to rest in cemeteries outside the palace walls.
Machu Picchu's history remained shrouded in mystery until the early 20th century when it was rediscovered by adventurous explorers. In 1912, the Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition unearthed 174 burials at the site. These burials, often found in shallow graves or concealed under large boulders and rocky overhangs, were accompanied by intriguing ceramic artifacts.
The ceramics discovered at Machu Picchu portrayed a captivating array of styles, reflecting influences from various regions across Peru and Bolivia's highlands near Lake Titicaca. This striking cultural diversity hinted at the palace's magnetism, drawing people from far and wide, each bringing their unique cultural heritage.
To unlock the secrets of Machu Picchu's past, the research team sequenced ancient DNA from the remains of 68 individuals—34 buried at Machu Picchu and 34 buried in Cusco. Carbon dating was employed to determine the remains' age, revealing that some individuals were buried even before Pachacuti's reign and the inception of the Inca empire.
The researchers compared the ancient DNA with that of modern Indigenous peoples living in the Andes today, as well as with ancestries from distant regions of South America. Their analysis sought to trace the origins of those who once inhabited Machu Picchu and determine the extent of their diversity.
The DNA analysis yielded remarkable revelations. Among the samples studied, 17 individuals had ancestries from distant regions, including the Peruvian coast and highlands, as well as Amazon regions spanning Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Additionally, 13 individuals exhibited blended ancestries, with origins as far-reaching as Brazil and Paraguay. These findings strongly suggested that Machu Picchu served as a meeting point for people from diverse lands, where relationships blossomed, and children were born.
The team theorizes that many of these individuals might have belonged to a class of "chosen women" known as acllacona and a corresponding class of men called yanacona. Members of these groups were selected at a young age to serve in state, aristocratic, or religious capacities. Upon their arrival at Machu Picchu, they dedicated their lives to the service of the royal estate.
Interestingly, the pre-Inca remains found at Machu Picchu did not exhibit the same level of diversity as those from the height of the Inca empire. This suggests that the establishment of the empire facilitated the influx of individuals from various regions, resulting in a rich melting pot of cultures at Machu Picchu. The examination of individuals from Cusco also showcased a lesser but notable level of diversity, a testament to the area's long history of cultural interactions before the Inca's rise.
The remarkable genetic diversity found within the ancient remains at Machu Picchu adds yet another layer of wonder to this historic site. Once merely a palace, it now stands as a vivid testament to the thriving exchange of cultures and people across the vast Inca empire. The mysteries hidden within its walls continue to captivate archaeologists and enthusiasts alike, reminding us of the fascinating complexity and interconnectedness of our ancient past.