Genetic Analysis Suggests Twin Legends of Inca Origins Are Correct

The Incan Empire ended shortly after Europeans arrived in 1531, but even when the empire fell, some of its aristocrats likely survived. Hundreds of years later, their descendents—and their genes—live on in the Andes Mountains, as do stories about where precisely those nobles came from in the first place.

Two such stories exist, one linking the nobles to Lake Titicaca and the other to a mountain called Pacaritambo. And it turns out that the genes they've left behind can help confirm those stories, according to an ongoing genetic analysis of people believed to be descended from Inca nobles.

Some of the early results of that work are published in a recent paper in the journal Molecular Genetics and Genomics, which analyzed the genomes of 18 individuals from the area.

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The team was particularly interested to look at the results of Y chromosome analysis. That's because those chromosomes are passed directly from father to son across generations and because scholars believe power in the Incan Empire, also known as Tahuantinsuyo, was inherited the same way.

"The conclusion we came to is that the Tahuantinsuyo nobility is descended from two lines, one in the region of Lake Titicaca, the other around the mountain of Pacaritambo in Cusco," first author Jose Sandoval, also a geneticist at the University of San Martin de Porres in Peru, told Agence France Presse. "That confirms the legends."

This picture taken on August 27, 2016, shows Machu Picchu, which stands 2,430 meters above sea level. The Incan empire ended shortly after Europeans arrived in 1531. Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images

The team of scientists wants to build on the paper by analyzing both more modern genomes and those of mummies belonging to Inca rulers. But unfortunately, the second piece of that is quite challenging, since most of those remains were destroyed by the Spanish invaders.

The researchers have also contributed the same genetic work going into this project to one looking at how local resistors against Spanish rule remained genetically isolated in a group of people called the Chachapoya. While the Spanish did their best to destroy the cultures they came upon, they couldn't quite destroy their genetic legacies—and those may be our best hope for rediscovering the culture's secrets.