Scientists find the skeleton of an Inca woman at the Pucará of Tilcara

Clarisa Otero, CONICET archeologist, led a research team that discovered the remains of an adult woman and several elements that reinforce the notions about pre-Hispanic funerary practices.

Illustration and reconstruction process by Jorge A. Gonzalez.

At 2400 meters altitude, in the center of the Quebrada of Humahuaca, is the Pucará of Tilcara, a fort that holds the archeological structures of a pre-Hispanic people. It was here that Dr. Clarisa Otero, associate researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) at the Institute of Andean Ecoregions (INECOA, CONICET-UNJu), and her research team found the skeleton of a woman who apparently belonged to an elite group during the Inca domination of the region. Her remains were genuflected and surrounded by ceramics, corpse fauna, beads, metal plates, and a bone tube that could have been part of a musical instrument or used to inhale hallucinogens. There were also pigments, flint blocks and two pestles with copper ore and hematite.

“This finding reinforces the notions of pre-Hispanic funerary practices and provides new and valuable information. The absence of a structure to hold the body and the presence of corpse fauna proves that this woman was partially or completely exposed, which shows that her position was intentional and her decomposition was in situ. This means that once her body was placed there, it was not moved”, Otero explains.

Nevertheless, experts indicate that part of her remains were manipulated because the skeleton was not found disjointed, the right tibia was missing. In other contexts of the Pucará, scientists found evidence of separation of skeleton parts and even the modification of some bones to be used as instruments to inhale hallucinogens.

The manipulation of human remains was a common practice at the Andes and was part of religious beliefs that is still held by some communities. According to the Andean conception on death, the dead continued being present in ordinary life and also had active participation in rituals of policy-making. The ancestors were the responsible for promoting the welfare of the people and fertility.

In conflicts, especially during the Spanish conquest, ancestor worship strengthened as it was believed that the dead could provide protection. The case of the woman of Tilcara could belong to this belief as the dates indicate her death took place between the end of Inca domination and the Hispanic-native period, that is to say, the time prior to effective Spanish occupation of Quebrada de Humahuaca, at the end of 16th century A.D., but when the Inca Empire collapsed.

This woman was possibly exposed to promote her survival and visit during hard times. Her fine ornaments indicated that possibly she had an outstanding role in society. “Although we know that she did not live the first years of her life in the Quebrada because of the kind of offerings she received, the location of her body, her role in the community was not minor. This woman was possibly part of an elite group that came from other region of Tawantinsuyu, which was able to move and settle in the Quebrada as a shelter from the Spanish onslaught”, the researcher explains.

This region was one of the few territories of the north of Argentina that did not suffer the immediate colonization because the Quebrada peoples resisted for more than six decades the European intrusion. In this historical context, the figure and presence of this woman in one elevated yard of Pucará, visible from different points, could have been used to create and hold identity bonds to reinforce the collective memory and Inca traditions before the impending arrival of the Spanish people.

The finding and its relevance

November 18th 2016

It was hot and cloudy in the Pucará of Tilcara. At midday Clarisa Otero and her research team were in the dwellings and craft workshops occupied during the Inca domination of the region (15th to 16th century A.D.) To advance in the reconstruction of craft and daily work done in this structure, apart form digging in the context where the woman was found, the floor of the yard was excavated.

After 30 centimeteres of excavation with special spoons, scrapers and pickaxes, the experts took the brushes. “First we found the woman´s skull, something unexpected as burials of people are generally done in the corners of the dwellings. For this reason we never choose the angles of the premises to excavate because our main objective is the development of specialized craft production during Inca domination of the Pucará. After the excavation of the woman’s skull we noticed that the skeleton was almost complete and articulated. The elements we found with her body indicated that she was not an ordinary person. At first, we thought that she could have been an craftsman linked to the specialized tasks that were done there, a camayoc. From the analysis of the context and the evidence we have another hypothesis on the role of this woman in the Quebrada society”, the archeologist explains.

Later analysis

Different studies were conducted to define the date of the finding, the age of the woman, her medical condition, to know that she was not born in the place were she died, or to analyse her corpse fauna. Furthermore, the researchers studied the rocks that surrounded her body, the metal plate, the zooarcheology samples and pollen.


The results of the contextual analysis of the evidence found around this woman’s body and the particular studies on her remains indicate the value of interdisciplinary work to advance in the knowledge of pre-Hispanic mortuary practices.

It was possible to determine that the woman was born and grew up in another region, different from the Quebrada and part of her mortuary offerings came from other environments such as the atacamite beads, some ceramics, the Lauraceae plants, the lizard and maybe the Microcavia australis. The presence of these animals is not insignificant because they had symbolic value in rituals for healing and promoting fertility. The information provided by forensic entomology was essential to identify the kind of mortuary treatment of the body in order to expose it to be collectively contemplated.

Take a look at the infographic here.

The importance of the Pucará of Tilcara

Located in the very heart of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, the Pucará is one of the largest pre-Hispanic peoples of the north of Argentina. The beginnings of this site are dated between 10th and 13th centuries. Its most populated period and its building expansion took place during Inca domination of the Quebrada (14th to 16th century). After the annexation of this region to the Tawantinsuyu, the Pucará became the capital of the Inca province: wamani  of Humahuaca. Along its 18 hectares several housing structures, craft workshops, ceremonial buildings, burial places and paths to connect them were constructed. The role of the Pucará in the Quebrada was significant not only as one administration and political center of the Empire. So far, experts found more than fifty workshops in which metal and rock craftwork was specially done. Apparently, the craftwork of sumptuary use, particularly those made in alabaster, onyx and travertine were taken to other Inca provinces. Some objects found at the Pucará of Tilcara are similar to some ornaments found in Cuzco and Machu Picchu. These similarities show the interest of the State in creating a specialized production center in the Quebrada, 1700 km away from the capital of the Empire. The source of raw material of the place and the abilities of the locals who had to learn new forms of craftwork could have been the reason for creating the center there. Currently, the Pucará of Tilcara is one of the greatest tourist attractions of Argentina. In 1950 and 1960, the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the UBA promoted the construction of the museum, making it an icon of the pre-Hispanic past of Argentina.

By Sergio Patrone Firma Paz

Infographic: Facundo López Fraga