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Early gunshot victim uncovered

June 20, 2007 By Lucy Odling-Smee This article courtesy of Nature News.

Violent wounds tell story of the Spanish conquest of Inca peoples.

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Archaeologists have dug up a skeleton from an Inca cemetery in Peru with a hole in its head. The wound suggests that this is the first documented gunshot victim in the New World.

Along with another 70 or so severely injured individuals buried near it, the find may provide the first physical record of a conflict that took place almost half a millennium ago between native Americans and Spanish explorers.

"There are written descriptions of the battles between conquerors and natives from Spanish writers," says Peruvian archaeologist Guillermo Cock, who led the dig. "But this is the first material evidence."

Cock and a colleague began digging in the suburb of Puruchuco outside Lima in 2004 at the request of the Lima city government, which wanted to ensure that the area was clear for development. In two years, they recovered more than 500 bodies, adding to the some 2,400 dug up by Cock from the area in an earlier field season.

Most of these were buried in a typical Inca style: wrapped in successive layers of cloth to aid mummification and placed in a crouched position with the body facing east. But high up on the hillside, Cock found a cluster of 72 bodies that looked as though they had been thrown down in haste. They were close to the surface — disheveled instead of being carefully positioned — and often wrapped in a single layer of cloth, with no offerings, such as copper, buried with them.

And many of them showed signs of severe injury. "At least ten skeletons had the left side of their face smashed in," says Al Harper, a forensic anthropologist at the University of New Haven's Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science in Connecticut, who was called in to help establish the causes of the injuries.

Harper says the shape of the wounds is consistent with the individuals being hit by maces — iron balls suspended on a chain — known to have been used by the Spanish. Based on Spanish writings, Cock and his team believe that these killings took place in the summer of 1536 during an Inca uprising against the Spanish occupiers, known as the siege of Lima.

Musket shot

One individual had a particularly distinctive injury: a hole in the top of his skull with a piece of bone sitting inside it. "It was clear that something round had hit it and forced the plug of bone into the brain," says Harper.

An electron microscope revealed that the edges of the hole and the entire bone plug were impregnated with fragments of iron, a metal known to have been used for Spanish musket balls. That and the size and shape of the hole indicated to Harper and Cock that the individual was killed by Spanish gunfire. The find has not been published; it was announced by the National Geographic Society.

"The kinds of injuries we found were much more violent than anything we've seen before in cases of conflict between natives," says Cock.

Cock thinks that the Spaniards' need to use weapons sparingly, being so far from home, may explain why more Inca bodies haven't been found with similar wounds.

"We all grow up with an abstract knowledge of the conquest in the New World," says Gary Urton, an archaeologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who wasn't involved in the study. "But this brings the human scale of the events of the conquest to us in all its stark reality."

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