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Remains of women from pre-Inca tomb studied

Women whose skeletons were found in a 1200 years old pre-Inca tomb in Peru could have been aristocrats: daughters or granddaughters of immigrants from different parts of the Wari empire - according to chemical analyses. The tomb was discovered by Polish archaeologists in 2012.

Remains of women from pre-Inca tomb studied
With her hair still intact, the skull of a woman from the Wari elite brings new clues about the life of the ruling class 
of El Castillo. Before burying her, her maids painted her face with red pigment, still visible over the eye socket 
[Credit: National Geographic]
The tomb containing 64 skeletons - mostly women - and more than 1200 precious objects made of silver, gold, bronze and other materials was discovered by a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Miłosz Giersz from the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw in 2012. The discovery was made in central Peru in Huarmey, 300 km north of the country's capital Lima.

Scientists have established that the tomb belongs to the representatives of the Wari civilization of Wari and originates from the 8th-10th century AD. "The Huarmey area has long been regarded as the outskirts of the Wari civilization, so we assumed that the elites from this place came from outside. But the recent chemical analyses of the content of strontium isotopes in the bones and teeth of the deceased show that the women buried in the tomb that we discovered had been born in the area" - Dr. Miłosz Giersz told PAP.

Anthropologist Dr. Wieslaw Więckowski from the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw added that it was necessary to collect two samples from each of the examined subjects. First sample, in the form of a tooth, allowed to identify the place of birth of the women. The proportion of strontium isotopes in the tooth enamel reflects the proportion of isotopes in the geological substrate of the birthplace of the person and the place in which that person lived for the first few years. That is when the teeth are formed, and the proportion of isotopes in their enamel does not change afterwards.

The second sample came from the rib because - as Więckowski explained - in this case the proportion of strontium isotopes changes throughout the person's life. Therefore, by comparing the two samples, researchers can determine whether the deceased had changed their area of residence during their life.

"The strontium isotope proportion values were the same in both samples - meaning that the deceased were born in the place where they lived. In addition, all of the values were consistent with the values for the area we were investigating" - said Dr. Więckowski.

Remains of women from pre-Inca tomb studied
Anthropologists examine the remains a woman from the Wari elite the burial site at El Castillo de Huarmey 
[Credit: Reuters]
Does this mean that the theory about the foreign origin of elite representatives from the large tomb is wrong? According to Dr. Giersz it may, but only to some extent.

"There is a lot of evidence that the women from the tomb we discovered were born and raised in Huarmey. But the isotope method only allows us to draw conclusions about the studied persons, not their ancestors" - Dr. Giersz noted.

In parallel to the isotopic studies, the scientists performed DNA analyses. It turned out that the genetic material of buried women was significantly different from that of the people who lived in the Huarmey area in previous centuries.

"This allows us to suppose that the women buried in the tomb we examined could have been daughters or granddaughters of immigrant women from different parts of the Wari empire" - said Dr. Giersz.

In addition to the conclusions concerning the origin, researchers have been able to gain insight into the diet of the deceased on the basis of bone strontium isotope analyses. Researchers assumed that if women were actually from the Huarmey area, their diet, like the diet of earlier residents of the area, should rely heavily on fish and seafood.

"Here we were surprised because the analysis shows that most of the women mainly consumed lamb and agricultural produce, and only a few of them also consumed products of marine origin" - said the head of the expedition.

These observation confirmed the scientists' belief that they were dealing with elites of foreign origin. But not in the first generation.

Remains of women from pre-Inca tomb studied
Dr. Patrycja Prządka-Giersz (L) and Dr. Wiesław Więckowski (R) in the laboratory 
 [Credit M. Giersz]
"Perhaps the aristocrats in the tomb were born in the Huarmey area, but partially retained the dietary habits of their mothers and fathers. They gradually incorporated seafood into the diet, which the results of our research also reflect" - said Dr. Giersz.

Thanks to archaeological research, Polish specialists recreated the appearance of the monumental tomb, where several years ago they discovered the collective burial of women. According to the scientists, above the tomb of the women was a mausoleum in the form of a tower, in the central chamber of which there was a centrally located throne. "Perhaps the mummy of a local ruler was displayed on the throne, but this is only a working hypothesis" - noted Dr. Giersz.

Or perhaps women had the most important role in this region of the Wari Empire? This could be indicated by the term for "woman" in the Quechua language - "huarmi" (and the name of the place in which the Poles discovered a large female tomb is Huramey). According to a local legend, it was in Huarmey that two daughters of one of the most meritorious Inca rulers, Pachacutec, were buried.

Dr. Miłosz Giersz does not exclude that the tomb could belong to the wives of one of the rulers of the Wari Empire. In the tomb, researchers found rich, ornamental jewellery, luxury goods imported from distant corners of the empire, including obsidian and decorated ceramics, and a unique, inlaid ceremonial kero mug made of white alabaster.

The discovery of a tomb of this period that has not been robbed is unique, as all the tombs of the elite of this culture known to date have long been robbed or destroyed - the scientists emphasised.

The results of the isotopic studies have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Co-authors, in addition to Dr. Giersz and Dr. Więckowski, are Dr. Kelly J. Knudson of Arizona State University in the US and Weronika Tomczyk of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw.

Author: Szymon Zdziebłowski | Source: PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland [July 10, 2017]

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