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Pizarro's Family and His Head "Exploring the Inca Heartland"
September 1, 1999

Family From Cradle to Grave

Extremadura, an isolated poverty-stricken unfertile region in west-central Spain, was a harsh nursery, and it was there that Francisco Pizarro was born, along with his fellow explorers and conquistadors Cortez, Balboa, and Orellana. Guidebooks will tell you that the pig-raising people of Extremadura eat lizards even today. Pizarro, himself a swineherd in his youth (we don't know whether he ate lizards or not), was one of four illegitimate half-brothers. All four were involved in the conquest of the Inca. Juan was killed in an assault on Sacsayhuaman during Manco's rebellion in 1536. Hernando spent 20 years in prison, where he lived well on his share of the loot, having been accused by rivals of provoking the rebellion. Gonzalo was executed for high treason in 1548. Francisco, governor of Peru, was assassinated in Lima three years later. Of the family, only Pedro, a younger cousin, died in his bed after writing his account of the conquest. Francisco did not record his experiences first-hand; he was illiterate.

The Fate of Pizarro's Head

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Almagro and Pizarro, center, aboard a Spanish ship

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Death of Pizarro

In 1541 the Wheel of Fortune turned against Francisco Pizarro, and the conquistador reaped a bit of what he had sown. After the fall of Cusco in 1533, the Pizarro brothers had cut their rival, Diego de Almagro, out of much of the booty. By way of compensation, Francisco offered him Chile, and the Spaniard marched off in hopes of conquest and gold. He returned two years later, having found no fortune, and helped suppress Manco. His quarrel with the Pizarros led to a battle between their factions at Las Salinas on April 26, 1538. Captured, the defeated Almagro was garroted on Hernando's order. Francisco, now governor, later stripped Almagro's son, also named Diego, of lands leaving him bankrupt.

The embittered young Almagro and his associates plotted to assassinate Francisco after mass on June 16, 1541, but Pizarro got wind of their plan and stayed in the governor's palace. While Pizarro, his half-brother Francisco Martín de Alcántara, and about 20 others were having dinner, the conspirators invaded the palace. Most of Pizarro's guests fled, but a few fought the intruders, numbered variously between seven and 25. While Pizarro struggled to buckle on his breastplate, his defenders, including Alcántara, were killed. For his part Pizarro killed two attackers and ran through a third. While trying to pull out his sword, he was stabbed in the throat, then fell to the floor where he was stabbed many times.

Alcántara's wife buried Pizarro and Alcántara behind the cathedral. He was reburied under main altar in 1545, then moved into a special chapel in the cathedral on July 4, 1606. Church documents from the verification process for remains of St. Toribio in 1661, however, note a wooden box inside of which was a lead box inscribed in Spanish: Here is the skull of the Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro who discovered and won Peru and placed it under the crown of Castile.

In 1891, on the 350th anniversary of Pizarro's death, a scientific committee examined the desiccated remains that church officials had identified as Pizarro. In their account in American Anthropologist 7:1 (January 1894), they concluded that the skull conformed to cranial morphology then thought to be typical of criminals, a result seen as confirming identification. A glass, marble, and bronze sarcophagus was built to hold the "http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/peru/pizarro" mummy, which was venerated by history buffs and churchgoers.

But in 1977, workers cleaning a crypt beneath the altar found two wooden boxes with human bones. One box held the remains of two children; an elderly female; an elderly male, complete; and an elderly male, headless; and some fragments of a sword. The other contained the lead box--inscribed as had been recorded in 1661--in which was a skull that matched postcranial bones of the headless man in the first box. A Peruvian historian, anthropologist, two radiologists, and two American anthropologists studied the remains. The man was a white male at least 60 years old (Pizarro's exact age was unknown; he was said to be 63 or 65 by contemporary historians) and 5'5" to 5'9" in height. He had lost most of his upper molars and many lower incisors and molars, had arthritic lipping on his vertebrae, had fracture his right ulna while a child, and had suffered a broken nose.

Examination of the remains indicated that the assassins did a thorough job. There were four sword thrusts to neck, the sixth and twelfth thoracic vertebrae were nicked by sword thrusts, the arms and hands were wounded from warding off sword cuts (a cut on the right humerus and two on the left first metacarpal; the right fifth metacarpal was missing altogether), a sword blade had cut through the right zygomatic arch, a thrust penetrated the left eye socket, a rapier or dagger went through the neck into the base of skull, and a pair of thrusts had damage the left sphenoid. The savage overkill suggests revenge as a motive rather than simple murder or death in battle.

The scholars concluded that these were indeed the remains of Francisco Pizarro. The two children might be Pizarro's sons who died young, the elderly female is possibly the wife of Alcántara, and the other elderly male Alcántara. The dried out body long thought to be Pizarro exhibited no sign of trauma as would be expected if it was indeed the corpse of the conquistador. They decided that the interloper was possibly a church official, and replaced the body with the conquistador's bones in the glass sarcophagus.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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