Archaeologists in Peru have unearthed a massive royal tomb full of mummified women that provides clues about the enigmatic Wari empire that ruled the Andes long before their better-known Incan successors.
"For the first time in the history of archaeology in Peru we have found an imperial tomb that belongs to the Wari empire and culture," lead archaeologist Milosz Giersz said.
Researchers said the discovery will help them piece together life in the Andes centuries before the rise of the Incan empire, which was written about in detail by the conquering Spaniards.
The mausoleum, unearthed a few months ago at a coastal pyramid site called El Castillo de Huarmey 185 miles (299 km) north of Lima, contained gold pieces, ceramics and 63 skeletons about 1,300 years old.
Researchers said most of the bodies found in the burial chamber were mummified women sitting upright - indicating royalty and suggesting Wari women held more power than previously thought.
"The women were buried with finely engraved ear pieces made of precious metals that once were believed to be used only by men," archaeologist Patrycja Przadk said.
Historians believe the Wari, who ruled between 600 and 1100 A.D., were the first people to unite diverse tribes into a sophisticated network across most of today's Peruvian Andes.
Bioarchaeologist Wieslaw Wieckowski said six skeletons were not wrapped in textiles and appear to have been human sacrifices for the mummified elite.
"They were people thrown into the grave before the grave was sealed," he said. "They were lying on their bellies, in an extended position and their limbs went in different directions."
Archaeologists told National Geographic that they kept their work quiet for fear grave robbers would pick the site clean.
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