Chapel for Francisco Pizarro in the Lima cathedral (photograph by Christian Haugen)
The bones of infamous conquistador Don Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1476 – June 26, 1541) rest in an ornate glass, marble, and bronze sarcophagus in a chapel in the Cathedral of Lima in Peru. Though Pizarro’s remains are now in a place of honor for visiting by pilgrims and historians, this wasn’t always the case. A mummy, whose identity was lost to history, stole Pizarro’s post-mortem spotlight for decades due to a case of mistaken identity.
The tomb of Francisco Pizarro ( photograph by Brian Flaherty)
Francisco Pizarro was a Spanish conquistador who conquered Peru, decimated the Incan empire, and founded the city of Lima. Pizarro’s life was as treacherous as it was adventurous and could have inspired anything read about in the Game of Thrones series. This conqueror’s death was as violent as his life, and the marks his brutal assassination left on his bones were key to identifying his remains more than 400 years later.
Live by the Sword…
The life of Francisco Pizarro was complicated, rife with treachery, and filled with bloodshed. Here is a quick summary.
Pizarro was born around 1476 in Trujillo, Spain, the illegitimate child of a poor farmer. He was illiterate and looked after his father’s pigs as a child.
In 1510, Francisco Pizarro embarked on a disastrous expedition to Colombia with Spanish explorer Alonzo de Ojeda. Then he joined Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513 on his his voyage to Panama, during which Balboa became the first European to discover the Pacific Ocean. Pizarro was the mayor and magistrate of Panama City from 1519 to 1523, and led two unsuccessful expeditions into Peru — one in 1524, and the second in 1526.
Statue of Pizarro in Trujillo, Spain (photograph by David Jones)
When the governor of Panama refused a third expedition, Pizarro decided to return to Spain to appeal to Charles V in person. In 1528, he obtained a commission — the Capitulación de Toledo — from Emperor Charles V and Queen Isabella of Portugal to found a colony in South America.
Pizarro landed on the coast of South America in 1532, and this time he was joined by his brothers — Juan, Gonzalo, and Hernando. In November of 1532, he overthrew the Inca leader Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca, even though Atahualpa and his forces ridiculously outnumbered Pizarro and his men. Atahualpa had an army that numbered 8,000, while Pizarro only had about 168 fighters. According to legend, Atahualpa offered Pizarro a ransom large enough to fill a room if Pizarro spared his life. Pizarro agreed and got the gold, but executed the fallen king anyway.
Woodcut of the execution of Atahualpa (via Wikimedia)
In November of 1533, Pizarro and his men marched on Cuzco and conquered the Incan capital. The victor then made himself the governor of Incan territory. Three years later, in 1535, Pizarro founded the new capital city of Lima.
Over the next six years, hostility and conflict arose between the Spanish conquerors. These tensions eventually split the conquistadors into two groups: one led by Francisco Pizarro, and the other led by Pizarro’s former friend, Diego de Almagro.
These rivalries peaked on April 26, 1538, when Almagro engaged Pizarro’s brothers in the Battle of Las Salinas. After the brothers’ victory, Hernando Pizarro captured and executed Almagro. Francisco confiscated Almagro’s territory and riches, leaving his son penniless.
The capture, trial, & execution of Diego de Almagro, depicted by Theodor de Bry (via Wikimedia)
On June 26, 1541 in Lima, Almagro’s son and his supporters planned to avenge his father’s death by brutally assassinating Francisco Pizarro after Sunday mass. However, Pizarro heard about the plot and avoided mass that day.
The conspirators changed their plans and attacked the governor’s palace during Pizarro’s Sunday dinner, which had 20 guests, including Pizarro’s half brother Francisco Martine de Alcántara. It was during this brutal battle that Pizarro was violently assassinated.
The killing of Pizarro in an 1891 engraving (via Library of Congress)
The bodies of Pizarro and Alcántara were buried behind the Lima cathedral the night of June 26, 1541. Pizarro’s body would not rest in peace, as it was reburied and relocated each time the cathedral was rebuilt over the centuries. The bones were moved so many times that church authorities lost track of them.
In 1545, Pizarro’s bones and swords were exhumed and placed in a wooden box under the altar. In 1551, Pizarro’s daughter gave the church 5,000 pieces of gold to construct a chapel in her father’s honor. According to church records, Pizarro’s bones were deposited in a wooden box covered in black velvet in this area of the cathedral.
Pizarro’s bones were moved to a new church in July 4, 1606, when the Cathedral of Lima underwent reconstruction. His bones were moved again sometime between 1623 and 1629.
In 1661, during the verification process for the remains of St. Toribio, the first saint from Peru, church records documented the presence of a lead casket inside a wooden box covered in brown velvet. The lead casket had the following inscription: “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 — the 350th anniversary of Pizarro’s death — a team of scientists was formed to positively identify the mummified body that church officials believed belonged to Francisco Pizarro. The body in question was missing its hands and genitals, and had been mummified by the dry air of Lima. They believed that the mutilations to the body could be attributed to Pizarro’s brutal death.
This research team relied on the testimony of church officials and phrenological landmarks to make their identification. After the mummified body was mistakenly identified as Francisco Pizarro, it was placed in a lavish sarcophagus for public display.
Illustration from “The Land of the Incas and the City of the Sun; or the story of Francisco Pizarro and the conquest of Peru” (1885) (via British Library)
Die by the Sword
In 1977, workmen who were cleaning the crypt under the altar in the Cathedral of Lima discovered two wooden boxes filled with bones. One of the wooden boxes held a lead casket with an inscription:
“Here is the skull of the Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro who discovered and won Peru and placed it under the crown of Castile.”
Since the Cathedral of Lima had been displaying a mummy they believed to be Francisco Pizarro since 1891, the church called in Dr. Hugo Ludeña, a Peruvian historian, to settle the matter. After examining the remains and church documents, Ludeña and his team of researchers found that the skull did indeed belong to Pizarro. But other Peruvian scholars disputed these findings.
So in 1984, forensic anthropologist William Maples and his colleague, Dr. Robert Benfer, were asked to travel to Peru to examine the skeletal remains in the two wooden boxes. In his book, Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Maples describes this process.
The larger wooden box, which he called box A, contained the comingled remains of the following:
- The bones of at least 2 children
- The remains of an elderly female
- The skull and post-cranial bones of an elderly male
- Only the post-cranial bones of a second elderly male (the skull was missing).
- The smaller wooden box, called box B, held some human bones and the lead casket with the inscription and a skull.
When articulated, the occipital condyles of the skull in the lead casket fit perfectly with the vertebrae of the skull-less post-cranial bones of the second elderly male in Box A.
The physical examination of the skull from the lead casket and the skull-less post-cranial bones of the elderly male from Box A revealed they belonged to a Caucasian male who was at least 60 years old, and stood between 65 and 69 inches (1.65 and 17.5 meters) tall. Healed fractures and arthritis revealed a man who lived an active and violent life. The biological profile of these skeletal remains corresponded to what we know about Pizarro, who was thought to be about 63 or 65 years old when he died.
The physical examination also revealed numerous perimortem injuries to the right side of the body, which would be consistent with a right-handed swordsman. Maples noted injuries that caused tool marks on the bones. These include:
- At least four stab wounds to the cervical vertebrae
- Stab wound to the abdomen
- Defensive wounds in the arms and hands
- Injuries to the skull
These injuries fit nicely with the historical accounts of Pizarro’s assassination. Because a few of Pizarro’s attackers survived to be interrogated, we know what happened that night in the governor’s palace in 1541.
As Don Francisco Pizarro sat down to Sunday dinner with his 20 guests, Almagro and his supporters charged the walls of the governor’s palace to seek revenge. Reports vary about the number of attackers, some say seven men and others report as many as 25. Most of Pizarro’s guests ran off, but three or four stayed behind to help defend the governor, including Alcántara.
Killing of Francisco Pizarro, illustrated by William Prescott in 1851 (via Wikimedia)
As Pizarro tried to fight off his assassins, he received a rapier wound to his throat that incapacitated him. He was stabbed a few more times in the neck before he went down. As Pizarro fell to the floor, his assassins surrounded him and repeatedly stabbed his body.
Because the biological profile and the wounds were consistent with historical accounts, Maples and Benfer believed these bones could indeed belong to Francisco Pizarro. To be sure, they examined the mummy that had been identified as Pizarro in 1891. They found that the mummy belonged to a male who was about 65 inches tall who had a gracile, or small, skeleton. Despite the mummies missing hands and genitals, the bones showed no signs of an active or violent life, and lacked evidence of wounds or injury. They believed that these remains belonged to someone who was a scholar or a man of the church.
Maples and Benfer identified the skull in the lead casket and the skull-less post-cranial bones of an elderly man in Box A as Don Francisco Pizarro, reinforcing Dr. Hugo Ludeña’s findings in 1977. In 1985, Pizarro’s bones were placed in the ornate sarcophagus now on display at the Cathedral of Lima, and funeral rites were performed that Pizarro himself had asked for in his will.
The other bodies in Box A could not be positively identified. The bones of the 2 children may belong to two of Pizarro’s children. The female skeleton may belong to Alcántara’s wife, and the skeleton of the other elderly male may be Alcántara himself.
Dr. Hugo Ludeña has some great photographs from his investigation in 1977 and the Maples and Benfer investigation in 1984 on his website.