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Portrait of Peruvian girl, representative of descendants of the Inca. Source: Jose Luis Stephens/

DNA Study Unveils Machu Picchu Servants' Enigmatic Diversity


Most ancient DNA studies focus on societal elites found in elaborate tombs. But new research on DNA gathered from the bones of servants who worked for Inca royals at Machu Picchu reveals a diverse society comprising distant genetics.

Situated high in the Andes Mountains of Southern Peru, Machu Picchu is the world-renowned 15th century Inca citadel. Despite many excavations, this deeply sacred site is still shrouded in intriguing archaeological mysteries and its original purpose and function remain unclear. However, the precision of its construction - orientated and aligned with celestial events - provides evidence of the Incas advanced knowledge of astronomy.

Until now, little was known about the everyday people who fed and clothed the Inca elites, and astronomer-priests, in residence. A new genetic analysis shows how the people who lived, worked, and died, serving the Inca ruling family at Machu Picchu, were “a diverse community representing many different ethnic groups from across the Inca empire”.

Classic vista of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background. (Pav-Pro Photography / Adobe Stock)

Classic vista of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background. (Pav-Pro Photography / Adobe Stock)

A Greater Genetic Diversity Than Expected

The new study was published in the journal Science Advances and it represents the first exploration into the genomic diversity of the everyday people buried at Machu Picchu and other Inca sites around Cusco, the ancient capital city of the Inca Empire. Lead researcher, Professor Richard Burger of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said the new study expanded on earlier bio-archaeological data, including the findings presented in a 2021 Yale University study which found that Machu Picchu was “older than was previously believed”.

Burger said the new DNA analysis confirms historical accounts claiming servants and retainers for the upper classes at Machu Picchu “were drawn from many different ethnic groups under Inca control.” But furthermore, the study also reveals “a much greater diversity of origins than was previously suspected, with DNA From the entire empire,” according to Burger.

Ancient DNA test

Importing People, Post Inca Conquest

The team of researchers from Yale worked alongside scientists from the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC), the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC), Tulane University, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The geneticists identified the origins of DNA gathered from 34 servants buried at Machu Picchu, who had served the upper crust of the Inca ruling family. The researchers then compared the results with DNA samples from another 34 individuals buried around Cusco, which yielded a host of “unexpected results.”

Dr. Lucy Salazar, a research associate in Yale’s Department of Anthropology, said, “unexpectedly about a third of the retainers had DNA from two zones within the Amazonian region”. Another unexpected result was that many of the individuals had “mixed ancestries, often from regions distant from each other.” This observation suggests the servants working at Machu Picchu were “selecting mates from other genetic groups to produce a diverse population unlike those found in agricultural villages”.

The Statue of Pachacuti can be found on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. (Pixabay)

The Statue of Pachacuti can be found on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. (Pixabay)

The Golden Age of Pachacuti

The 2021 Yale-study suggested that Machu Picchu was a royal estate associated with the lineage of Sapa Inca Pachacuti, who founded and ruled the Inca Empire in the mid-15th century. Implementing ambitious expansion and architectural projects, including Machu Picchu, Pachacuti’s legendary military conquests, social, religious and administrative reforms, serve as a motif of the Inca Empire's golden age.

When Pachacuti’s extended family were residing at Machu Picchu a swathe of servants and retainers, known as “yanacona,” were brought to work at the cloud-city. Now it is known the servants originated in distant conquered lands, and according to the new study this destiny was infinitely better compared to the general population who were slain on the spot, enslaved or slowly prepared and brutally sacrificed to the gods.

Top image: Portrait of Peruvian girl, representative of descendants of the Inca. Source: Jose Luis Stephens/Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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