In 1533 the first Spaniards to reach Cusco, capital of the sprawling Inca Empire, discovered temples covered with gold plates, altars and fountains similarly glimmering and architecture whose stonework rivaled or surpassed anything comparable in Europe. But the greatest surprise came when two soldiers entered one well-constructed palace of a dead emperor and found that he and his deceased wife were—in the eyes of the Inca—still alive.
In the palace’s inner sanctum they found an old woman wearing a gold mask, waving a fan to keep flies off the immobile pair. The couple were no longer breathing but sat upright, perfectly mummified. They and their attendants wanted for nothing: Family members interpreted their wishes and benefited from the wealth the dead still owned. During holy festivals the dead ancestors were paraded behind the living emperor, their history and achievements adding to those of the living.
Of this, the Spaniards would learn later. At the time, the soldiers deferred to the mummies’ power even as they defied it. The Spaniards took all the gold from the dead couple in front of them but incongruously, in a sign of respect, agreed to take their shoes off before doing so. Such was the power that the ancient Andean dead wielded over the living, even when the Spaniards would later deny—nervously—their continuing vitality. And if measured in the true wealth the mummies still possessed—which was the people they sustained and who looked up to them—the Inca emperors achieved more in death than most of us do in a lifetime.
In that, the Inca were hardly alone. In the Andes, mummification was a way of preserving power, not memorializing it. As the Spanish discovered, the western spine of South America might be the Earth’s largest natural laboratory for making mummies. The sands of its bone-dry coast, stretching from Peru down to northern Chile, first made them naturally.
Then, 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro people learned to mummify their dead—2,000 years before the ancient Egyptians. Archaeologists now think that artificial mummification transformed loved ones into representatives of the community—ambassadors to the natural world who ensured the fertility of their descendants and their resources. It also may have been a way of understanding and ritualizing the everyday experience of encountering the dead, preserved and exposed by the passage of time in desert sands, on cold, dry peaks and across high plains.
By the time Inca expansion began in the 1200s, highland Andean peoples were placing their ancestors in caves or similarly accessible burial towers—chullpas, whose location marked resources and divided territory. Whether permanently buried or temporarily interred, sometimes to be taken out and danced with, the mummies remained in an important way alive: like a dry seed, ready to bloom. Not dead but slowed, they brimmed with extraordinary invisible strength.
The oldest among them could also become huacas, holy things. The Inca Empire was able to spread as quickly as it did in part because of its fluency with this shared Andean idiom of divine ancestry. The Inca would honor—and control—their subjects’ most revered mummified dead by taking them to Cusco and worshipping them there. In exchange, subject lords were called upon to recognize that the Inca, as children of the sun, were the ancestors of all humanity; they were sometimes enjoined to offer their own sons and daughters to the empire, to be pampered, taught and then sacrificed and planted on sacred mountaintops, where they themselves were naturally preserved.
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