The Secrets of Machu Picchu Revealed, Thanks to Ancient DNA


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Jul 24, 2015
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The Secrets of Machu Picchu Revealed, Thanks to Ancient DNA

Machu Picchu, the mysterious Incan ruin and spiritual pilgrimage site lying high atop the Peruvian Andes,has been receiving much attention lately.

Dr. Brenda Bradley of George Washington University is to lead a team of researchers from institutions around the country in the genome mapping and analysis of roughly 170 individual remains buried at the site. The study, the first of its kind to date, hopes to put to rest many questions that scientists have about the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other members of the team include Lars Fehren-Schmitz from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Yale University’s Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar.

“There is a longstanding debate about what the function of Machu Picchu was because it is so unique and unusual as an Inca site,” Dr. Bradley said. “It is too big to be a local settlement. And it’s too small and not the right structure to have been an administrative center for the Inca Empire.”

Speculations About the Ruin
The prevailing hypothesis among researchers is that Machu Picchu was a so-called “royal retreat.” Think Camp David for sitting presidents of the US. Inca Emperor Pachacuti, long believed to be the builder of the site, would have visited and held diplomatic meetings there. Dr. Bradley explained that the archaeology indicates that people who resided there were likely craftsmen recruited from throughout the empire to work at the site.

“They were probably very skilled people who came from far and wide to play very specific roles. That’s what we predict,” she said. “We can now look at the DNA to see if that is true.”

This hypothesis is set to be tested by the DNA analysis by showing the relationships among the ancient people, whether they are from the same ancestral lines and locations, said Dr. Fehren-Schmitz, who has analyzed the genomes of many different populations throughout South America. This information also will help to put Machu Picchu in the context of the larger Inca Empire.

“I’m interested in local processes and how increases in social complexity and social change influence genetic diversity,” he said. “One thing that makes Machu Picchu so interesting is the idea that the people buried there doesn’t reflect just a local population.”

What’s more is that pre-colonial diversity among the Incan people will be uncovered for the first time. “Colonialism introduced disease and likely wiped out a lot of genetic diversity,” Dr. Bradley said. “This is a chance to look at genetic diversity before that happened.”