Scientists are searching for the living relatives of the children that were sacrificed in Peru 500 years ago. Inca priests performed the ritual sacrifices four miles up on mountain peaks to appease their gods. The dead children became natural mummies, due to the dry air and high altitude.

Three years ago, a team led by Dr. Keith McKenney of George Mason University established the first link between a teenage sacrifice in what is now Argentina and a living man who lived around 1,000 miles away from the site. Now, hundreds more DNA samples are being taken from Peruvians and more studies are planned on thousands of mummified bodies recently found in an ancient cemetery on the outskirts of the Peruvian capital of Lima. The cemetery provided “an extraordinary collection of all kinds of social categories and age groups, a slice of Inca life”, says Dr. Johan Reinhard, explorer in residence for National Geographic.

The DNA studies are being conducted in two phases: first doctors will focus on mitochondrial DNA, the more plentiful type found in the part of cells that is passed down from the mother. Next they will focus on the best matches by studying nuclear DNA, which provides the genetic blueprint for an individual person.

An earlier study of mitochondrial DNA from 19 villagers at the foot of Ampato, the Peruvian mountain where a mummified “ice maiden” was discovered in 1995, revealed they were not her relatives. This was not surprising because the sacrificed children often belonged to rulers of distant lands, who offered them up to the Inca to bind allegiances with the largest empire of that time, which spread 2,500 miles from Peru to Ecuador and south into the southern Andes of Argentina and Chile.

But McKenney did link one of the 19 with a female mummy found in Argentina three years ago. The DNA match with the mummy implies that the man is the living relative of the girl, who would have been worshipped as an Inca god. The three mummies – two girls, one of whom had been struck by lightning, and a boy – were found 1,000 miles south of the Peruvian sacrificial site, on Mount Llullaillaco in Argentina.

The undamaged girl, who was buried alive as a 15-year-old, looks as if she fell asleep a few days ago. “A chill went down my spine when I saw her hands, which look like those of a person who is alive,” says Reinhard.

Her DNA is ideal for study, since it is as undamaged as that of a living person, unlike most mummy DNA. “We can even get blood,” says Reinhard, adding that it will enable doctors to find out what infectious diseases she had been exposed to and other clues to the Inca lifestyle.

Advances in technology mean the mummified remains of these victims “never stop giving new information,” says Reinhard. “In this sense, they have achieved a form of immortality.”

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“With so many people, one day these ruins are going to sink,” says tour guide Juan Taco, talking about Machu Picchu, the mysterious city the Incas built 600 years ago in the southwestern mountains of Peru’s Urubamba Valley.

Taco’s concern is shared by environmentalists and anthropologists of Peru’s National University of Cuzco, who are alarmed that so many tourists are causing the large foundation boulders to shift in the sacred city, which was “rediscovered” in 1911. In the year 2000 alone, around 100,000 people visited the archaeological complex. “The unceasing footsteps of so many people produces an effect similar to a small-scale earthquake, shifting the rocks and making the constructions unstable,” says Lucio Cisneros, an engineer and geologist at the National University of Cuzco.

One of the most publicized incidents occurred in January when the corner of the principal stone of the sundial at Machu Picchu broke off when a mechanical arm used in filming a television advertisement fell on it. Experts and environmentalists criticize the governmental National Institute of Culture (INC), which is in charge of the ancient Inca city’s administration, for allowing heavy equipment to be used at the fragile site.

The INC has prohibited entry to the Temple of the Sun, the main ritual site, and to other areas of the ruins “in which the stones have been damaged or tourists have carved their names,” says Machu Picchu guard Pedro Santa Cruz.

The large number of tourists poses a serious threat to the delicate setting, according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which declared Machu Picchu a Heritage of Humanity Site in 1983. After conducting a series of studies, UNESCO urged the Peruvian government to reduce the number of visits to the ancient ruins from 1,200 to 500 people per day.

In July 2001, President Alejandro Toledo held a promotional meeting at Machu Picchu to which 45 tourism operators from around the world were invited, a move that seems likely only to increase the number of feet walking over the ancient site’s paths and stones.

The Disaster Prevention Institute of Japan’s Kyoto University warned in a June 2001 report that, “An avalanche could separate the ruins into two parts at any time.” Not only Machu Picchu, but also the entire Cuzco region is located on the Tambomachay geological fault, where seismic activity has already caused several quakes.

There are other problems as well. “Because there are no rules regulating the tours through the ruins, and because there is little oversight, many tourists throw garbage just anywhere and don’t think about the consequences,” says tour guide Taco.

Another potential threat is a private company’s project to build a cable car system to the ruins. For now, the project has been put on hold. If completed, it could increase the number of daily visitors to 4,000. Building a cable car “would be crazy because it would mean the destruction of Machu Picchu. But the authorities have not ruled it out because more tourists means more income for the country,” according to Cisneros. He says the cable car project, which UNESCO opposes, would require a base over 300 feet deep, “which would destroy the anthropological remains that may be found below the sanctuary.”

To learn more about the mysterious lost worlds of Peru, read ?Atlantis in America? by Ivar Zapp and George Erikson, click here.

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