400-year-old book may hold keys to Incan history
QUITO, Ecuador — Historian Tamara Estupinan carefully leafs through the pages of a 400-year-old, leather-bound book. She stops when she finds a shaky signature. The faint scrawl has obsessed her for more than 30 years, leading her to find forgotten Inca ruins and sparking an academic firestorm.
The signature, she says, is the key to solving two of archaeology's greatest questions. What happened to the body of Atahualpa, the last king of the Incas? And what became of his fabled treasure?
The story begins in 1532 when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured Atahualpa, which is pronounced ah-ta-WAL-pah, in Peru.
Pizarro demanded a room full of gold in exchange for Atahualpa's release, but he grew too impatient and executed the ruler. Atahualpa's body disappeared, and his faithful generals were thought to have stashed the treasure they were hauling in secret caves. For centuries, people have been scouring Ecuador, looking for the Incan treasure.
Missing: Treasure Of Gold And A King's Corpse
However, Estupinan says she knows why the loot will never be found. What Atahualpa's followers were really hiding was no mere treasure, but the future of the empire itself. They were hiding the king's corpse.
For a new Incan king to be crowned, she explained, the ceremony had to take place in front of the mummy of the king who came before.
"For the (Incas), the real treasure was Atahualpa's body," she said.
Estupinan's search began with a book and a signature. As a young historian in the 1980s, Estupinan became fascinated with ancient economic texts, like receipts. One day, she stumbled across the will of Atahualpa's son, Francisco Topatauchi, written on December 16, 1582, 50 years after his father's death.
Few had learned to read the complicated Spanish writing of the time. It took Estupinan almost a year to write out the seven-page document into intelligible text.
Tracking A Mummy To Its Final Resting Place
In 2003, as she researched the life of famed Incan General Ruminahui, she discovered a curious pattern. The general, who has been rumored to have played a role in hiding the treasure, as well as several other Incan officials, all closed in on a remote area of Ecuador called Sigchos, about 70 miles southwest of the capital Quito. She wondered why everyone was heading to a place that was in the middle of nowhere. When she went back to the son's will, Estupinan found that Sigchos was part of Atahualpa's landholdings.
Working on a hunch, Estupinan began researching Incan funerals and discovered that a ruler's mummy was referred to as a malqui. Sure enough, there was an area called Malqui near Sigchos. A few years later, Estupinan was studying an old map when she found an area called Machay, an Incan name that refers to final resting places, also near Sigchos.
"They weren't going to name an area Malqui-Machay just because they felt like it," she explained. "There had to be something there." In 2010, Estupinan brought an archaeologist to the region, convinced they would find the resting place of the last Incan king.
"It was terrifying because I was putting my academic prestige on the line," Estupinan recalls.
With the help of some villagers, they eventually stumbled on an area where thick brush concealed previously unknown Incan-style stonework.
"When I got to the top of the mountain, I started seeing walls and walls and walls," Estupinan said. "I got goose bumps ... and started screaming 'We've discovered Malqui-Machay, the last resting place of the Inca!'"
Uncertainty Surrounds 2010 Discovery
The 2010 discovery made news around the world and led the government of Ecuador to protect the archaeological site. However, it also sparked debate about exactly what Estupinan had discovered.
The site sits in a wet and windswept area that is not typically associated with Incan construction. Built around a trapezoidal plaza with a network of stone walls and water channels, most academics agree that the building was likely an Incan governmental or religious site. They are much more wary about Estupinan's claim that it is Atahualpa's final resting place.
"It was easier for me to discover the site than to prove what I've discovered," Estupinan lamented.
Miguel Fernando Mejia is the head of the archaeology department at Ecuador's Institute of Patrimony, which safeguards national cultural treasures. He says Estupinan's discovery is definitely significant, but that they do not know if it is truly Atahualpa's final resting place.
More Physical Evidence Is Needed
David Brown, an archaeologist and retired professor from the University of Texas who has done research at Malqui-Machay, calls Estupinan a "world-class" researcher who has found something that is "undeniably important." However, he wishes there were more physical evidence.
Estupinan says Atahualpa's body, like the fabled treasure, might never be found.
The Incas, Estupinan notes, did not bury their dead rulers. They kept them out in the open as "living oracles." Once the mighty Incan empire collapsed, the body was likely lost in the chaos, she speculated.
For Estupinan, there is no doubt about what she found. She thinks she has gone most of the way to proving she is right. However, she needs just a bit more proof, and that proof is Atahualpa's body.