Discovery of Mummies Fuels Archeologists’ Rush to Dig Up Peru’s Past


A piece of coarse, brownish-yellow cloth with a green stripe loosely covers the leathery skin of a Peruvian who died more than 500 years ago.

Dried gourds, stubby cobs of corn and blackened beans, offerings buried along with the pre-Columbian resident of the Lima Valley, lie scattered among the pile of remains.

Archeologist Daniel Guerrero dusts away grains of desert sand and lifts the fabric to show a bent knee, then points to a round bulge--the mummy’s still covered head.


The mummy is one of more than 50 recently unearthed in an Indian cemetery on the outskirts of Lima that is shedding light on the lives--and deaths--of the little-known people who lived here even before the arrival of the Incas and later the Spaniards.

Excavation of the cemetery that dates to 1400 is part of what experts say is a “mummy rush,” as archeologists scramble as never before to uncover Peru’s ancient past.

From the royal Moche tomb of the Lord of Sipan on Peru’s northern coast to the snow-packed peaks of the south, where Inca children were sacrificed to mountain gods, and at dozens of sites in between, archeology is enjoying a resurgence.

Experts say that more than 30 archeological projects a year are going on in Peru, compared to barely half a dozen in the late 1980s. Many of these take place at sites that go back thousands of years, belonging to cultures that lived in Peru long before the more recent and famous Incas.

“Great quantities of things have been found in the past, but by grave robbers who didn’t record what they took,” Guerrero said. “Only recently are we excavating scientifically.”

The spectacular discovery in 1987 of the Lord of Sipan tomb, considered the richest pre-Columbian site ever found in the Western Hemisphere, refocused archeologists’ attention on Peru. But the threat of terrorism in the late 1980s and early 1990s kept most away.

Before the capture of Shining Path guerrilla leader Abimael Guzman in September 1992, much of the country, especially the highlands, was off-limits to archeologists--and almost everyone else. The Shining Path guerrilla movement terrorized Peru during its height in the 1980s.

“The fear has decreased, above all among foreign archeologists who are beginning to return to work in Peru,” said Guillermo Cock, an archeologist with the National Institute of Culture.

Now archeologists have rediscovered the country that boasts of having the “archeological capital of America”--the city of Cuzco. The ancient capital of the Inca empire, with its intact Inca walls and foundations, is the gateway to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

The archeological frenzy ignited by the Sipan tomb was fanned again earlier this year when National Geographic in Washington exhibited the frozen mummy of an Inca girl discovered last year on a 20,000-foot mountain peak in southern Peru.

The girl, called the “Ice Princess” or “Juanita,” is one of the best examples of a frozen mummy ever found. She was sacrificed by Inca priests to the mountain god, and buried with gold and ceramic offerings.

“At one point there was a kind of fever--everyone wanted to find his own Sipan. Now everyone wants to find his own Juanita,” Cock said.

The American archeologist who discovered Juanita, Johan Reinhard, returned this year to explore more mountains. Although he uncovered more mummies, none was in as good a condition as the first.

Mummy expert Sonia Guillen, who studied Juanita after the mummy was brought down from Mount Ampato in September 1995, believes that the renewed interest in Peru is also part of the Indiana Jones image of archeology.

“This mummy rush going on lately is part of a new vision of archeology as full of adventure, things unknown, mystery,” she said.

Like the Indiana Jones movies, the Peruvian adventure also involves a race against greed.

While the Lord of Sipan and Juanita returned to museums in Peru after exhibitions in the United States, many antiquities are illegally excavated--or stolen from museums--and smuggled out of the country for sale abroad.

The Indian graveyard at the foot of the Andes east of Lima is a sad example of that wholesale plunder of Peru’s cultural heritage.

The 12-acre site once extended for 60 or 70 acres, but most of it was destroyed by an illegal sand and gravel operation run there for 40 years, until 1991.

The operator “robbed the best and burned the rest” so nobody would interfere with his business, Guerrero said.

“There must have been thousands of these mummies. This is nothing. Fifty is a small sample,” Guerrero said.

Even mountaintop sites are not safe from looting. Since the Juanita discovery, officials have complained of looters trying to scale the same peak in hopes of finding more artifacts.

Still, some Peruvians criticize the pell-mell haste to explore ancient sites as disrespectful to the ancient people and their modern-day descendants.

Reinhard, however, said the critics are mistaken, and doing nothing only leaves the sites to be plundered by grave robbers.

“As far as I can tell, this is the only way we are going to preserve them,” he said. “Within 10 years, forget it. These places are going to be looted.”