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New World’s first gunshot victim identified

June 20, 2007
Courtesy National Geographic Society
and World Science staff

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists have un­cov­ered the ske­l­e­ton of the first doc­u­mented gun­shot vic­tim in the New World in an In­ca cem­e­tery out­side Li­ma, Pe­ru. The body is thought to be the first fo­ren­sic­ally prov­en cas­u­al­ty of the Span­ish con­quest, one of 72 ap­par­ent vic­tims of an up­ris­ing against the con­quis­ta­dors.

Courtesy National Geographic


The find, from a team led by Pe­ruvian ar­chae­o­lo­gist and Na­tional Ge­o­graph­ic grant­ee Guillermo Cock, was an­nounced June 20 by the Na­tional Ge­o­graph­ic So­ci­e­ty.

Cock, who has worked more than 20 years to un­der­stand these In­di­an gravesites, had dug a test trench in a hill­side in the sub­urb of Pu­ru­chu­co at the re­quest of the Li­ma city gov­ern­ment, which planned a road there. In the trench, Cock and ar­chae­o­lo­gist col­league El­e­na Goy­co­chea struck a set of graves and con­clud­ed that the spot had been a cem­e­tery. 

Since they be­gan dig­ging in 2004, the team has ex­ca­vat­ed about 500 skel­e­tons dat­ing back some 500 years to the In­ca civ­il­iz­a­tion. Called the “Ro­mans of the New World,” the In­ca con­quered the en­tire An­de­an re­gion un­til their reign ended in 1532 with the Span­ish in­va­sion.

Cock found that 72 of the bod­ies on the hill­side had been bur­ied with­out the usu­al In­ca rev­er­ence for death, such as be­ing rit­u­ally wrapped, placed in a crouched po­si­tion and fac­ing east. “These bod­ies were strangely bur­ied,” Cock said. “They were not fac­ing the right di­rec­tion, they were tied up or hastily wrapped in a sim­ple cloth, they had no of­fer­ings and they were bur­ied at a shal­low depth. Some of the bod­ies al­so showed signs of ter­ri­ble vi­o­lence. They had been hacked, torn, im­paled—in­juries that looked as if they had been caused by iron weapon­s—and sev­er­al had in­ju­ries on their heads and faces that looked as if they were caused by gun­shots.”

One of the skulls bore an en­trance and ex­it wound, and near­by a plug of bone that might have been blast­ed out of the skull was found. At first, Cock thought the holes in the skull were mod­ern—re­sult­ing from van­dals. But the plug of bone, recov­ered in­tact, re­flected an im­pact much less force­ful than any mod­ern gun­shot and car­ried a dis­tinct con­cave im­print highly sug­ges­tive of a mus­ket ball, they said.

Fur­ther tests, in­clud­ing scan­ning for traces of met­al, con­firmed the hunch, they added. Edges of the holes in the skull and the en­tire bone plug were found to be im­preg­nated with frag­ments of iron, a met­al some­times used for Span­ish mus­ket balls. It ap­pears that a mus­ket ball less than an inch in di­am­e­ter had punched in­to the back of the skull and passed through the head, leav­ing pieces of iron deep in­side the bone that stayed there for 500 years.

The guns used to in­flict these in­ju­ries would have been some of the world’s first firearms—16th-century Eu­rope’s most ad­vanced mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy, ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an John Guil­martin of West Point Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my. “The Spaniards knew how to use them,” he said.

Cock and his team be­lieve the killings took place in the sum­mer of 1536 dur­ing an In­ca up­ris­ing against the Span­ish oc­cu­piers led by Fran­cis­co Pi­zar­ro, known as the siege of Li­ma. Among the 72 hastily bur­ied bod­ies were sev­er­al wom­en and ado­les­cents. Cock said these would not have been sol­diers but at­ten­dants and sup­port­ers of the war­riors, who cooked, car­ried sup­plies and took care of the in­jured.

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


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Archaeologists have uncovered the skeleton of the first documented gunshot victim in the New World in an Inca cemetery outside Lima, Peru. The body is thought to be the first forensically proven casualty of the Spanish conquest, one of 72 apparent victims of an uprising against the conquistadors. The find, from a team led by Peruvian archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Guillermo Cock, was announced June 20 by the National Geographic Society. Cock, who has worked more than 20 years to unravel the mysteries of these Indian gravesites, had dug a test trench in a hillside in the suburb of Puruchuco at the request of the Lima city government, which planned a road there. In the trench, Cock and archaeologist colleague Elena Goycochea quickly struck a set of graves and concluded that the spot had been a cemetery. Since they began digging in 2004, the team has excavated about 500 skeletons dating back some 500 years to the Inca civilization. Known as the Romans of the New World, the Inca conquered the entire Andean region until their reign ended in 1532 with the Spanish invasion. Cock found that 72 of the bodies on the hillside had been buried without the usual Inca reverence for death, such as being ritually wrapped, placed in a crouched position and facing east. “These bodies were strangely buried,” Cock said. “They were not facing the right direction, they were tied up or hastily wrapped in a simple cloth, they had no offerings and they were buried at a shallow depth. Some of the bodies also showed signs of terrible violence. They had been hacked, torn, impaled—injuries that looked as if they had been caused by iron weapons—and several had injuries on their heads and faces that looked as if they were caused by gunshots.” One of the skulls bore an entrance and exit wound, and nearby a plug of bone that might have been blasted out of the skull was found. At first, Cock thought the holes in the skull were modern—resulting from vandals. But the plug of bone, recovered intact, reflected an impact much less forceful than any modern gunshot and carried a distinct concave imprint highly suggestive of a musket ball, they said. Further tests, including scanning for traces of metal, confirmed the hunch, they added. Edges of the holes in the skull and the entire bone plug were found to be impregnated with fragments of iron, a metal sometimes used for Spanish musket balls. It appears that a musket ball less than an inch in diameter had punched into the back of the skull and passed through the head, leaving pieces of iron deep inside the bone that stayed there for 500 years. The guns used to inflict these injuries would have been some of the world’s first firearms—16th-century Europe’s most advanced military technology, according to military historian John Guilmartin of West Point Military Academy. “The Spaniards knew how to use them,” he said. Cock and his team believe the killings took place in the summer of 1536 during an Inca uprising against the Spanish occupiers led by Francisco Pizarro, known as the siege of Lima. Among the 72 hastily buried bodies were several women and adolescents. Cock said these would not have been soldiers but attendants and supporters of the warriors, who cooked, carried supplies and took care of the injured. The bodies were hastily buried most likely because the Inca, in the midst of the uprising, had no time or resources to bury their dead in the appropriate, traditional manner.