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The Funeral of Atahualpa by Luis Montero

The Search for the Tomb and Treasure of the Last Inca Emperor


Legend has it that a gold-filled treasure room and the mummy of the last Incan emperor awaits those who can locate the final resting place of Atahualpa. But none so far have been able to discover the hidden location of the doomed emperor and his enormous ransom.

Sought for centuries, the tomb of the last emperor of the Inca empire has eluded historians and archaeologists, although hidden sites across the Andes mountains and within the jungles of the Amazon have been investigated. The find would resolve the enduring mystery of what became of the body of Atahualpa after he was executed by the Spanish in 1533, resulting in the end of a dynasty and an empire.

Atahualpa, Fourteenth Inca.

Atahualpa, Fourteenth Inca. Public Domain

The Inca Empire was the largest in pre-Columbian America. From their capital, Cuzco, in the central Peruvian Andes, the empire stretched over 2,400 miles (3860 kilometers) along the length of the Andes (modern-day Bolivia and Peru to Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia), and was home to 12 million people in the 1400s and early 1500s, hosting various languages, impressive cities, temples, engineering terraces and grand fortresses.  

Atahualpa was a powerful leader, having just wrested control from his brother during a civil war. Shortly after, however, the new emperor was taken captive in what is now Cajamarca, Peru by Spanish troops under conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

Painting "Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru", by John Everett Millais, showing Pizarro in the act of capturing the king of the Inca Atahualpa.

Painting "Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru", by John Everett Millais, showing Pizarro in the act of capturing the king of the Inca Atahualpa. Public Domain

It is said that in exchange for his life, Atahualpa offered to fill a room with tons of gold and silver. But nowhere is it chronicled the Spanish agreed to free the imprisoned emperor under any conditions, or for any payment. They executed Atahualpa by strangulation and it is not known what became of the great wealth of precious metals and jewels that was amassed by his followers, as it has never been found.

Atahualpa’s death paved the way for Spanish colonization, and the empire disintegrated.

Over the years, researchers have explored the lands of the former empire looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the mausoleum. No tomb has ever been located at the city of Cajamarca, where he died. A multinational team of researchers explored a remote region in central Ecuador, where remains of a massive structure, made up of hundreds of two-ton blocks was found in the Llanganates National Park, according to MailOnline.

More recently, experts targeted a site about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Quito. At the Malqui-Machay rural retreat researchers found a complex of ancient stonework walls, aqueducts, and trapezoidal underground water canals, reports CuencaHighLife.  

In 2014, Ecuadoran historian Tamara Estupinan,  researcher with the French Institute for Andean Studies (IFEA) located the ruins of the massive complex on a high ridge at 3,350 feet (1020 meters). Estupinan described the Malqui-Machay site, saying “This is a late imperial design Inca monument that leads to several rectangular rooms that were built with cut polished stone set around a trapezoidal plaza.”

Walls and ruins at Malqui-Machay, Ecuador, one of the sites searched for evidence of the tomb of the last Inca emperor.

Walls and ruins at Malqui-Machay, Ecuador, one of the sites searched for evidence of the tomb of the last Inca emperor. Credit: National Section of the PAIGH Ecuador.

Archeologist Tamara Bray, of Wayne State University and a colleague of Estupinan told Agence France-Presse that the site revealed “an Inca edifice that is phenomenally well preserved and quite important scientifically.”

Investigations of the site confirmed to researchers that the Inca were active at the location, another good indicator that perhaps the mummy of Atahualpa (or his treasure) might be found nearby. Estupinan believes after Atahualpa was killed and given a Christian burial, his most loyal man, Ruminahui, could have moved the remains to a secure and secret location.  After Atahualpa’s death, Ruminahui led a revolt against the Spanish, and it’s thought he may have set up a base in Ecuador at Malqui-Machay to hide the mummy and his possessions.

Atahualpa’s father was born in Cuenca, further indicating an Ecuadorian connection.

According to BBC News, it was important to his followers that the emperor was mummified, as it was believed their powers stayed in the physical bodies after death. These mummies were thus guarded carefully by family.

So far, neither remains of Atahualpa nor a silver and gold hoard have been located, but the hunt continues even today, as people narrow down the myriad possibilities. Expeditions to find the tomb or treasure in Ecuador are currently seeking funding, and treasure-hunters, adventurers, and archaeologists alike have not given up on finding the final resting place of the last Inca emperor.

Featured Image: The Funeral of Atahualpa by Luis Montero (Wikimedia Commons)

By Liz Leafloor




How Egyptian are the findings in the image of the Incan King. Snakes on crown, Sun disc, and fog heads.


Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history,... Read More

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