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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Team Finds Cache of Inca Mummies

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of ancient Inca mummies, some bundled together in small groups with their possessions, have been discovered beneath a shantytown near Lima, Peru.

Archaeologists say the find may solve some of the mysteries surrounding the Inca civilization.

So far, researchers have uncovered the remains of 2,200 individuals. More are thought to remain buried.

"The mummies are starting to 'chat' with us, telling some amazing stories," lead archaeologist Guillermo Cock said in a statement.

One of the bundles included some 135 kilograms of raw cotton, the body of an Inca noble and a baby, as well as 70 other items, including food, pottery, animal skins and corn to make a fermented drink known as chicha.

"Mummy bundles are like time capsules from the Inca," said Johan Reinhard, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. "The huge number of mummies from one period of time provides an unparalleled opportunity for new information about the Incas."

The burials are thought to have occurred between 1480 and 1535, with the site serving as a central cemetery for the Inca, who ruled a powerful South American empire before being conquered by the Spanish.

More than 50,000 artifacts have been retrieved, with many of the individuals -- apparently elite members of Inca society -- still wearing the headdress feathers that marked their rank.

Cock said the quantity of burials represents an unprecedented opportunity to solve some of the mysteries of the Inca. The mummies represent a wide spectrum of Inca life, from infants to the elderly and from the very poor to the very rich.

Previous information on Inca culture has come from scatterings of burials, most of only a few individuals, not enough to allow many firm conclusions about Inca ways.

Cock and his team have worked for three years, trying to stay ahead of development in the area known to archaeologists as Puruchuco-Huaquerones. It is called Tupac Amaru by the 1,240 families living there. People began to settle there in 1989 after fleeing guerrilla activity in the Peruvian highlands.

Development of the shantytown is releasing thousands of gallons a day of liquids, including sewage, into the streets, where it can seep into the burials below, damaging mummies that have been well-preserved for nearly 500 years.

According to National Geographic, archaeologists transformed the town into a dig, turning the narrow streets into trenches. Bridges had to be built for people to cross the streets in front of their makeshift homes. Many of them went to work on the project.

A few mummy bundles were first discovered at Puruchuco in 1956, but the site was not explored. In 1985 some 70 test pits were excavated and 24 burials reported. Cock and his team of up to 18 specialists, mostly Peruvians, began work there in 1999, supported by National Geographic.

At Cock's lab in Lima, physical anthropologists from the United States and Canada are examining bones and other remains to try to learn more about these people, their health, what kind of work they did and how they died.

While there are thought to be hundreds of bodies remaining, Cock has no immediate plans for more digs in Puruchuco, as houses cover most of the untapped areas.