A team of geneticists, Spanish forensic experts and pediatrics from the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) led an investigation in Córdoba that has for the first time sequenced the complete mitochondrial genome of an Incan child mummy, first discovered in Mendoza.
Translation (because no brain should work hard on a Friday): Researchers at USC donned their lab coats and conducted a bunch of experiments lining up all of the genetic material present in the mummy of a 7-year-old Incan boy by extracting lung DNA. Props to them because the 5.2-meter long, embalmed body has been slowly decomposing for more than 500 years.
It was first discovered on Mount Aconcagua, the highest summit in the Andes (second highest of the seven summits in the world). In his day, the boy died as part of an Incan sacrificial ritual. Several mummies have been found on mountains scattered throughout what formed Inca territory.
This particular mummy is “one of the best preserved,” according to Antonio Salas, a USC human geneticist and one of the authors of the new study. The boy died in “one of the driest climates that exist,” which is what preserved the traces of DNA after being found frozen and half-buried in 1985, said Salas.
The results reveal a lost genetic history of South America in which the Aconcagua boy had to have genetically belonged to a population of native South Americans that all but disappeared after the Spanish conquest of the New World. This population shared a common ancestor not previously identified in modern indigenous peoples.
“Up to 90 percent of native South Americans died very quickly” after the Spanish conquest, said Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato. “You can imagine that a lot of genetic diversity was lost as well,” said Estrada. The Aconcagua boy’s mitochondrial DNA sequence has brought back a lost piece of history.
In 1999, another 500-year-old mummy was discovered on the Argentinian volcano Llullaillaco and was also taken in by scientists for analysis. The “Llullaillaco Maiden” was well-preserved, as evidence by her braided hair and showed sign of regularly ingesting coca and alcohol (party girl). Just kidding, these July 2013 results imply that the Llullaillaco Maiden was also a victim of a ritual sacrifice.
Much science. Very wow.