Tag Archives: Peru

How to Make an Inca Mummy

Christopher Heaney


As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.


[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].