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Wrong Bones in That Sarcophagus : 444 Years Later, Mystery of Pizarro Is Laid to Rest

Times Staff Writer

The life and bloody assassination of Francisco Pizarro are well-documented. The mystery, however, did not begin until after his death--and it has endured for four centuries.

Now, scientific detectives say they have finally solved The Case of the Conqueror’s Bones. Unmasking an impostor mummy along the way, the investigators say they have positively identified the bones of the elusive Pizarro, enabling them to reconstruct a 444-year-old murder in startling detail.

As the fruit of the scientific adventure, Pizarro’s remains were finally laid to rest here last month in a funeral rite that the old conquistador himself had prescribed in his will, dated 1537.

Francisco Pizarro entered the pages of history as an illiterate swineherd. Half a century later, he had been memorialized as the conqueror of the Inca empire, founder of the city of Lima and viceroy of Peru.

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A wiry 5 feet 9 inches, Pizarro was scarred, jut-jawed, heavily muscled and 63 years old when he died with a sword in his hand on Sunday, June 26, 1541, the victim of South America’s first coup.

“Pizarro bled to death,” said pathologist Uriel Garcia. “The fatal blow was a sword thrust that clipped his right jaw, probably cut the jugular vein and the carotid artery, and severed his spine. He was likely paralyzed when death came.”

Garcia and his Peruvian colleagues had a lot of help piecing together the Pizarro puzzle. Archeologists, anthropologists, pathologists, radiologists, chemists, historians and other volunteer gumshoes from hospitals, art museums and universities all chipped in to solve the mystery.

“Once the Pizarro bug bit, it became a passion for a lot of excited people,” said Hugo Ludena, an archeologist-historian who directed the quest for Pizarro as head of a Peruvian government agency that safeguards historic treasures.

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The story has two beginnings--436 years apart.

After Mass on the fateful day, Pizarro and some friends had lunch at his house on the Plaza de Armas in Lima, the city he founded six years before. The site is now Peru’s presidential palace, across the plaza from the magnificent cathedral where Pizarro’s remains rest in a marble chapel.

About a dozen assassins led by Diego de Almagro, whose father Pizarro had executed as a conspirator the year before--brandishing battle axes, swords, lances and crossbows-- burst into the house as Pizarro was finishing his meal. There was a desperate fight. In the course of it, his skeleton suggests, Pizarro was wounded on the thumb of his sword hand and lost a piece of his right elbow, apparently warding off the blow of an ax. The sword thrust to the throat finally killed him, as a procession of witnesses would later testify to Spanish courts trying his assassins.

Fearing that his killers would sever Pizarro’s head and impale it on a post in the plaza (as Pizarro regularly did to his enemies), friends spirited his body away. They dressed Pizarro in a white habit with a distinctive red cross of the Military Order of the Knights of St. James and buried it that afternoon behind the church.

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After his supporters carried off a counterrevolution, Pizarro’s body was exhumed on Jan. 21, 1544, and reinterred with honor under the main altar of the church. He stayed there in a wooden coffin for about 85 years, according to a painstaking chronology assembled by Ludena.

In the next decades, Pizarro’s body was repeatedly shifted around as the church was expanded into one of the New World’s most beautiful cathedrals and fell victim to such vexations as earthquakes.

In 1661, there was a watershed exhumation. Pizarro’s skull was placed inside a lead box. His skeleton went into a wooden box wrapped in velvet.

‘Authentic Shriveled Remains’

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The document attesting to that transfer did not turn up until 1935, and by then, the cathedral had another Pizarro on display--a well-preserved mummy in a glass-sided sarcophagus. For almost a century, this mummy held unending fascination for both Peruvians and foreigners. No tour of the country was complete without a glimpse of what the guides called “Pizarro’s authentic shriveled remains in a glass coffin.”

Some people suspected that the mummy, which had been carefully salted in a half-successful attempt at preservation, was not Pizarro. But in the absence of any evidence to back up the 1661 document, however, nobody could prove the mummy was a fraud. In 1945, in fact, a Peruvian doctor won the national prize for medicine for demonstrating scientifically that the mummy was that of Pizarro.

“Over the centuries, Pizarro somehow got lost within the cathedral,” Ludena said. “When visitors came and asked to see him, the caretaker showed them the mummy. He, too, was a Knight of St. James.”

When the Lima City Council decided to honor Pizarro on the 350th anniversary of his death in 1891, up came the mummy for public display in Pizarro’s chapel.

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The impostor would still be there, except for four workmen whose caprice on June 18, 1977, started the modern Pizarro saga.

“They were sent into the cathedral crypt to do some remodeling. . . . They opened up an adjoining wall that they weren’t supposed to touch,” Ludena recalled.

Beyond the wall lay a niche and a lead box with a rough inscription on the lid saying that it contained the skull of Francisco Pizarro. Next to the lead box lay a wooden crate of bones wrapped in velvet.

Too many bones, alas--almost four complete skeletons. With the aid of American researchers, the Peruvians eventually sorted them out: one man, one very old woman and two young children.

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Investigators think that the children may have been Pizarro’s. The woman may have been a niece of the conquistador, who died around 1590. They are sure that the man is Pizarro himself.

“The skull was the key piece. It ‘locked on’ to the male skeleton exactly right,” said Garcia, the pathologist. “The physical evidence entirely supports the historical record. You can not only see, but almost feel, the fatal sword thrust. There’s no doubt. We have Francisco Pizarro.”

Time, Money Required

There was a lot of corroborating to do, though, and no money to do it with. It took seven years for Ludena to assemble an international covey of scientific volunteers.

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In their investigations, they found the bones to be from the right century, and the man to have been Pizarro’s age when he died. They detected traces of lead on the skull, suggesting that it had indeed been long stored in the box. X-rays that highlighted the fatal thrust and more than a dozen other wounds were the clincher.

When the truth was discovered, “there was some local hostility at first. People liked their mummy,” Ludena said. “But I knew we would win. After the lead box was found, priests on their rounds of the cathedral with incense stopped blessing the mummy.”

In January, the Lima City Council bowed to science and ordered the bones of the real Pizarro moved to his public crypt in the cathedral here.

With the mystery concluded to everyone’s satisfaction, there remains the question of the masquerading mummy. Who is he?

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“Since the mummy is not Pizarro, the church is a bit reticent about letting us open him up,” Garcia said. “Superficial examination, though, suggests that he died of natural causes in his 50s--maybe as much as century after Pizarro. I bet he was just some bureaucrat.”


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