Inca warrior’s wound tells another tale of conquest

Times Staff Writer

Peruvian archeologists have identified the earliest documented gunshot victim in the Americas, an Inca warrior who was shot by Spanish conquistadors in 1536 in the aftermath of a battle now known as the siege of Lima.

The body, of one of 72 apparent victims of the uprising, was found in a cemetery in the Lima suburb of Puruchuco during excavation for a new road, researchers reported Tuesday.

Many of the victims, including women and children, showed signs of extreme trauma, having been hacked, torn or impaled, said archeologist Guillermo Cock of Peru’s National Institute of Culture.


Spanish records indicate the battle, which occurred near the area known as Lati Canal, took place Aug. 14, 1536, as a small group of conquistadors tracked down a group of Incas who had fought them the day before.

The records maintain that a few hundred conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, used their superior weaponry and their horses to repel an attack by tens of thousands of Incas led by Manco Yupanqui. After breaking the siege, the Spaniards tracked down and killed many of the Incas who had attacked, including the group at Puruchuco.

But the evidence casts the conquistadors in a less heroic light, Cock found. The archeological evidence makes it clear that the Spaniards were accompanied by a large group of Indians who were fighting the Incas to escape subjugation.

Although as many as three of the Inca warriors were clearly shot and others had injuries apparently made by the Spaniards’ metallic weapons, most of the 72 victims apparently were bludgeoned with more primitive stone weapons wielded by other Indians.

“The great siege must have taken place in a very different manner than we have been told,” said Efrain Trelles Arestegui, a historian at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, who was not connected with the research. Only now, he added, are researchers revealing “the great cover-up that took place in the 16th century.”

The tale of the Puruchuco Inca “is a remarkable detective story,” said UCLA archeologist Christopher Donnan, who was not involved in the find. “Many archeologists might have missed [the gunshot] or assumed it was an anomaly.”


The find, announced by the National Geographic Society and to be featured in a PBS special on Tuesday, “has enormous symbolic value,” said explorer Keith Muscutt of UC Santa Cruz. “We all have a mental image of indigenous people being destroyed by superior European technologies, and here it is -- tangible remains.”

The Inca warrior was undoubtedly not the first native shot by Spaniards in the 44 years between Christopher Columbus’ arrival and the Inca’s death. But the odds of finding such a victim are small, and the odds of finding a victim who could be linked so closely to documentary evidence are extremely low.

“Putting together all the evidence, we don’t have a doubt about what happened,” Cock said. “Sometimes we have to speculate in order to connect evidence and event. Here we found archeological evidence and the written record to connect it.”

The site is only half a mile from the Lima shantytown where, in 2002, Cock reported the discovery of more than 2,200 Inca mummies and more than 60,000 artifacts, the largest trove ever unearthed in Peru.

Cock and archeologist Elena Goycochea of the institute were asked to investigate the new Puruchuco site in 2004 by Lima’s government, which planned to build a road there. A preliminary trench on the site showed that it was a graveyard, and Cock immediately sought funding from the city and the National Geographic Society to excavate it.

“It was unlooted -- had never been excavated by grave-robbers -- which is really, really rare in Peru,” he said. “But it was at risk because it was too visible and looters would destroy it.”


They have so far excavated more than 500 skeletons from the site, all dating from the Inca period. The bulk of them exhibit classic Inca burials. The skeletons are posed in a crouched position, carefully wrapped and buried facing east toward sunrise, ready for their rebirth.

But 72 of the skeletons were different. They were not crouched but had been tied up or hastily wrapped; their graves were unusually shallow, and they had been buried without offerings. Most of them showed evidence of violence -- many quite severe.

One of the skeletons, in particular, had what appeared to be a bullet hole in its skull. Cock initially thought the male was the victim of a modern crime. Then, when it was clear that the bones were ancient, he feared that someone had been shooting into the ground at the site, damaging the skeletons.

But researchers also had the plug that had been knocked out of the skull by the projectile’s entry, and analysis showed that the force of the impact was not caused by a modern weapon, but was consistent with the muzzle velocity of the arquebuses, or muzzleloaders, used by the Spanish during that period.

“I saw the skull a year or so ago and was pretty convinced that it was a gunshot entry wound, with the classic clean entry hole and irregular fracturing and beveling on the internal table of the skull,” said archeologist John W. Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans.

Cock’s team took the skull and other bones to a hospital and had a CT scan done but could find no trace of metal.


Undaunted, Cock called in forensic scientists Tim Palmbach of the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn., and Al Harper, executive director of the university’s Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science.

They examined the skull and bone plug under a scanning electron microscope and found both were impregnated with iron, which was commonly used in Spanish musket balls.

“We were skeptical that it was a gunshot wound. We sought to disprove that,” Palmbach said. However, he said, “there is nothing we have found or evaluated that is inconsistent with a gunshot wound.”

The team has since found what appear to be bullet holes in two of the other skeletons. Wounds on many of the bodies could only have been produced by steel weapons, the team found, indicating that conquistadors must have been involved in the battle.

But more of the skeletons showed evidence of massive damage not produced by modern weapons. After examining Inca weapons at museums, Palmbach and Harper concluded that these injuries were most likely caused by the stone-headed clubs used by natives.

The bodies were hastily buried, Cock speculated, because the Inca, in the midst of their uprising, had no time to bury their dead in the appropriate traditional manner.