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Lost Tombs

Atahualpa, Last Inca Emperor

Ruled A.D. 1532-1533

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

atahualpa-incaAfter fighting a bloody civil war against his brother, the prince Atahualpa emerged as the sole leader of the Inca in 1532. But his reign was short-lived. While traveling to the Inca capital Cuzco to claim his throne, Atahualpa was seized at the town of Cajamarca by a small band of Spanish troops led by Francisco Pizarro. Legend has it that Atahualpa offered to fill a room with gold and silver in exchange for his release, but Pizarro had him executed in 1533. The Spanish gave Atahualpa a Christian burial in Cajamarca, but numerous accounts suggest his body was exhumed by his followers and mummified.


Ecuadorian historian Tamara Estupiñán of the French Institute of Andean Studies has spent more than a decade examining records from the period. Based on her analysis of the documents, she thinks one of Atahualpa’s generals, Rumiñahui, brought the emperor’s mummy to what is now Ecuador for safekeeping. She pinpoints the recently rediscovered site of Maiqui-Machay as Atahualpa’s final resting place. David Brown, a research fellow at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, is one of a group of researchers who have conducted recent fieldwork at the site, which was a small rural settlement occupied for several centuries before the Inca. “I think the evidence gathered by Tamara is certainly suggestive and points to the possibility that the mummy could have been carried there,” says Brown. “But the archaeology is lagging behind.” It’s unlikely that Atahualpa’s mummy survived the centuries, but other evidence from the Inca occupation of Maiqui-Machay could emerge to support Estupiñán’s bold thesis. “It remains for archaeologists to test through careful fieldwork,” says Brown.

Kamehameha I, King of Hawaii

Ruled A.D. 1795-1819

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

kamehameha-hawaiiThe morning star alone knows where Kamehameha’s bones are guarded. Despite the words of the Hawaiian proverb, people have speculated about the burial place of Hawaii’s first king ever since he died in 1819. Most can agree that his trusted lieutenants Ho’olulu and Hoapili took his bones and left them in a sacred burial cave whose location they kept secret. According to nineteenth-century historian David Malo, the two were strict adherents of the ancient Hawaiian concept of kahu, or the responsibility to guard idols or sacred things. “It is owing to the fidelity of the kahu that the hiding place of the great Kamehameha’s bones is to this day a profound secret,” wrote Malo in 1839.


Some Hawaiians believe Kamehameha is buried at the royal palace of Moku’ula, in Maui, the residence of King Kamehameha III from 1837 to 1845, and the site of a royal burial ground. According to legend, Kamehameha I may lie under Moku’ula in the grotto of a half-dragon, half-woman named Kihawahine. Others think his remains are in a cave in Maui’s Iao Valley, where many great Hawaiian chiefs are interred. In the late nineteenth century, the last Hawaiian king, David Kalakaua, who was passionate about Hawaiian history and culture—he is known for revitalizing the hula—became interested in finding Kamehameha’s remains. He is said to have ordered two sets of bones removed from a burial cave on the island of Hawaii and interred in the Royal Mausoleum in Oahu, believing one of them to have been Kamehameha’s. But information about those remains is sketchy, and the power of kahu will probably ensure Kamehameha’s bones will never be disturbed.

Tecumseh, Shawnee Leader

Ruled ca. A.D. 1789-1813

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

tecumseh-shawneeThroughout history in many cultures, preserving the physical remains of great figures has been considered vital for religious, cultural, or political reasons. Many Native Americans don’t share that outlook. The burial of Shawnee leader Tecumseh is a case in point. Tecumseh, whose name means “shooting star” or “panther in the sky,” led the Shawnee and a coalition of other native groups in resisting American settlement of the Ohio and Indiana territories in the early nineteenth century. He allied his forces with the English during the War of 1812 but was abandoned by them in 1813, at the Battle of the Thames in what is now Ontario. Refusing to retreat, Tecumseh died leading his outnumbered forces against American troops led by future president William Henry Harrison. According to eyewitnesses, Tecumseh’s slain body was taken up by his warriors, who buried him close to the battlefield.


No record exists of the exact location of Tecumseh’s grave. But Ken Tankersley, a University of Cincinnati archaeologist who is an enrolled member of the Piqua Shawnee and sits on the tribe’s Council of Elders, says that isn’t important. “For indigenous people, and the Shawnee in particular, what’s important is for the dead to ‘make the journey,’ or allowing the body to decompose, creating nutrients in the soil, and thus allow the cycle of life to continue.” Tankersley notes that Shawnee will occasionally visit the battlefield and leave a tobacco offering. “We know where the battle was, and the whole battlefield is considered a sacred site, and that is close enough.” He predicts that protests would erupt if an archaeologist or anyone else ever tried to find Tecumseh’s remains. Even using noninvasive remote-sensing technology to locate the burial would be considered unacceptable, says Tankersley. “No one should ever go looking for Tecumseh.”