Inca Mummies

Inca Mummies

The Inca civilization of Peru, as with many other ancient Andean cultures, mummified many of their dead and buried them with valuable materials such as precious metal jewellery, fine pottery, and sumptuous textiles. Important mummies could also be periodically removed from their tombs to participate in ceremonies where they were also offered food as if they were still living persons. Those mummies (mallki) which escaped looters have, in most cases, been excellently preserved, thanks to the dry climate of the Andes region, and they provide a unique insight into the culture, religious practices, and everyday life of the Incas.

Ancestor Worship

Mummification was only one type of burial employed by the Incas and was an ancient Andean manifestation of ancestor worship which illustrates a deep reverence for older generations (ayllu) and kinship within communities. Considered a link between the living and the gods, these mummies could also be taken from their resting place and 'consulted' on important occasions so that their knowledge might serve the living community. Given places of honour and offered food and drink, mummies were involved in such ceremonies as marriages, sowing, and harvesting, or when long journeys had to be undertaken by individuals within the community.

Preservation of the body was achieved by desiccation or freeze-drying, processes helped by the natural climate conditions in certain areas such as deserts and the high sierras. Bodies could also be treated and preserved using alcohol (from chicha maize beer). Earlier Andean cultures had used salt as a preservative and often de-fleshed the corpse and removed bodily fluids prior to internment. Mummies were placed in a fetal position and wrapped into bundles using several layers of textiles, bound with cords, and sometimes with a cloth head added. Mummies could be interred in caves or dedicated rooms within a community, often in groups, and these chambers were reopened every so often so that new mummies could be added. High status individuals were clothed and wrapped in particularly fine textiles and jewellery. The deceased's possessions were interred along with their owner, sometimes also with the tools of their particular profession.

Sacrificial victims, including children (capacocha), could also be mummified and placed in mountain-top shrines and other sacred sites (huaca). These were usually freeze-dried and their primary function may have been to reinforce Inca control over conquered provinces.

One of the most remarkable sites for mummified remains is the area around Cajatambo in the highlands of central Peru. No fewer than 1,825 ancient mummies were recorded by the Spanish in the 17th century CE. Here mummies were stored in sacred caves known as machay and, dressed in finery, they were periodically offered food and drink so that, having become part of the landscape themselves, their consultation would guarantee a fruitful harvest.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

At Cuzco there was a dedicated space for the mummified remains of former Inca emperors and their wives.

Royal Mummies

Due to looting by the conquistadores and subsequent grave robbers, very few tombs of the aristocracy have been discovered intact, but we do know about the royal mummies of the Inca capital Cuzco from written accounts. At the Coricancha religious complex at Cuzco, there was a dedicated space for the mummified remains of former Inca emperors and their wives, known as mallquis. Within these chambers, the mummified rulers were surrounded by their weapons and artistic treasures, as the Incas believed that the dead ruler remained the owner of the property he had accumulated in life.

Rather than the simple desiccation method, royal mummies got the deluxe treatment of entrails and organ removal, embalming, and skin tanning; they could even be set for eternity in a life-like posture. These mummies were brought out of storage during special ceremonies, such as those celebrating the solstices, and placed in a ring in order of their age in the open air of the main plaza, the Awkaypata or 'Terrace of Repose'. Each had a dedicated attendant who interpreted their wishes and stood by with a fly whisk. These regal mummies were dressed in fine clothes, gold ornaments, and exotic feathers. As though still living, offerings of food and drink were made to them, and the great achievements they had made during their reigns were read out for all to hear. Thus, a link was forged between present and past generations.

So venerated were these royal mummies that when the Spanish arrived, they were repeatedly moved around Cuzco to avoid their capture and destruction by the Europeans, who considered their reverence as idolatry. Ultimately, though, they were discovered and destroyed in 1559 CE. One Spaniard, Garcilaso de la Vega, described them as follows:

Their bodies were so perfect that they lacked neither hair, eyebrows nor eyelashes. They were in clothes such as they had worn when alive...They were seated in the way Indian men and women usually sit, with their arms crossed over their chests, the right over the left, and their eyes cast down...I remember touching a finger of the hand of Huayna-Capac. It was hard and rigid, like that of a wooden statue. The bodies weighed so little that any Indian could carry them from house to house in his arms or on his shoulders. They carried them wrapped in white sheets through the streets and squares, the Indians falling to their knees and making reverences with groans and tears... (D'Altroy, 97-99)


These three Inca mummies, buried 500 years ago, look as if they died yesterday

The largest mountain range in South America, the Andes, still holds many mysteries about the people who once lived there. The Inca Empire, which stretched through parts of today’s Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, held great respect for the summits of the Andes, as the almost unapproachable mountains were regarded as sacred.

In 1999, a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Johan Reinhard managed to overcome horrendous weather conditions and excavate a trio of mummies at one of the mountain tops called Llullaillaco in northwestern Argentina―all three of whom were incredibly well preserved even though they were more than 500 years old.

The altitude of more than 22,110 feet and the freezing temperature of an average of 9 °F played a tremendous role in preserving the bodies, as did the dry climate of the Atacama desert that surrounds the mountain.

The discovery was huge because it provided deeper insight into the Incan culture, which remains one of the least examined South American indigenous civilizations. The only known Incan writing system, called Quipu, is yet to be fully deciphered, unlike the Mayan script, thanks to which their culture is better understood today.

Llullaillaco from the east Author Dixk Culbert CC By 2.0

On top of that, the Spanish conquistadors left very little trace of the Incas existence after they colonized the city of Cusco, the Incan imperial capital, in 1534. They replaced many of the indigenous buildings with convents and military barracks.

Despite the scarce sources, it is well known about the Incas that peaks such as Llullaillaco were used as grounds for human sacrifices in rituals intended to ensure a good harvest, prevent natural disasters, or give a blessing to new emperors of the vast Incan realm.

So the three bodies found frozen in 1999 were most definitely part of a sacrificial rite that took place in the Andes in the 16th century.

The mummies found there were, in fact, children―the oldest of them being between 13 and 15 years of age―who spent the last year of their lives preparing for their role in the religious ceremony. A biochemical analysis of the hair of the oldest mummy, dubbed the Maiden of Llullaillaco, provided the details of the preparation process.

Archeological site at the top of Llullaillaco Author Christian Vitri CC By SA 3.0

It included a special diet and regular doses of coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived), intended both to sedate the future victims as well as to initiate them into another kind of ritual, as coca and its mind-altering effect was a regular part of the religious life of Incas. Another ingredient found through analysis of the bodies was chicha alcohol, derived from corn.

The children were most likely taken from their parents and placed under special supervision by the priestesses of the empire. The ritual of sacrifice was state-sponsored, for the Incan religion relied on human sacrifice as a guarantee of progress and security.

Seen through the lens of the Incas, the sacrifice would be interpreted as an honor, but the process obviously needed more practical elements of control, as the presence of psycho-stimulants confirms.

Reaching the summit of Llullaillaco was not an easy task then, and it isn’t today. Children from all over the Incan Empire would be taken on these sacrificial pilgrimages on various different mountains, where they would be placed in a tomb and either left to die by freezing or murdered by force.

La Doncella on display. Author Grooverpedro CC-BY 2.0

Apart from the Maiden, the two other bodies discovered in the Llullaillaco tomb were of a younger girl, aged six, and a boy of similar age. The oldest one apparently held a special place among them, for she was found with elaborately braided hair, wearing a feathered headdress on her head and surrounded by a number of artifacts placed on a cloth that was draped over her knees.

She was discovered sitting in a cross-legged position, contrary to the boy, who was tightly wrapped in a blanket, which the autopsy later confirmed caused suffocation. The other young girl received a similar treatment to the Maiden, but with fewer decorations, which indicates that her relevance was secondary.

Well after her death, lighting struck her corpse, damaging her face and part of her shoulder. Due to this particular coincidence, she was nicknamed the Lightning Girl.

El Niño Author Joseph Castro CC By 2.0

What remains fascinating is the degree to which the mummies are preserved. Alan Wilson, an archaeologist and forensic scientist from Bradford University, was left stunned after witnessing the three bodies. “This isn’t a desiccated mummy or a set of bones. This is a person this is a child. And this data that we’ve generated in our studies is really pointing to some poignant messages about her final months and years.

A new analysis in 2012 concluded that the Maiden of Llullaillaco was infected by a virus that has been long extinct. Due to the preservation of her body, the lung disease similar to tuberculosis stayed with her to this day and is now being used to discover more about the diseases of the past and of that particular region.

Doctors examining the mummy Author Grooverpedro CC BY 2.0

A team of medical scientists has concluded that the discovered virus could be put to use in studying other similar diseases such as the Spanish Flu, which nearly decimated the European population in a pandemic which lasted from 1918 to 1920.

Angelique Corthals of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who led the research team, stated,”Our study opens the door to solving many historical and current biomedical and forensic mysteries, from understanding why the plague of 1918 was so lethal, to finding out which pathogen is responsible for death in cases of multiple infections.

Corthals also pointed out that the significance of this study goes far beyond the historical value―it enhances the knowledge that could be used in the emergence of new diseases, or re-emergence of the ones thought extinct.

the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in the Argentine city of SaltaAuthor Calu Rivero2013 CC By 2.0

Even though the discovery of the mummies has proven revelatory in many aspects, a veil of controversy surrounds it. There are descendants of the Inca people who have expressed their belief that exhumation and display of the bodies are sacrilege and a gesture of great disrespected towards their culture.

Rogelio Guanuco, the leader of the Indigenous Association of Argentina, stated on the issue that “Llullaillaco continues to be sacred for us. They should never have profaned that sanctuary, and they should not put our children on exhibition as if in a circus.

Even though the three mummies of Llullaillaco remain exhibited in the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in the Argentine city of Salta, agreements were made to stop further excavation of tombs in the High Andes area.


Contents

In September 1995, during an ascent of Mt. Ampato (20,700 ft, 6309 m), Johan Reinhard and Zárate found a bundle in the crater that had fallen from an Inca site on the summit due to recent ice melt and erosion from a volcano eruption. [1] To their astonishment, the bundle turned out to contain the frozen body of a young girl. Juanita was found almost entirely frozen, which preserved her internal organs, hair, blood, skin, and contents of her stomach. [5]

They also found many items that had been left as offerings to the Inca gods including llama bones, small figurines and pottery pieces. The items were strewn about the mountain slope, down which the body had fallen. These included statues, food items (maize kernels and cob), and spondylus shells, which originate from ocean ecosystems. [6] These have been connected to rain ceremonies throughout the Incan Empire. [6] The clothing she wore resembled textiles from the elite from Cuzco, the Inca capital. As Juanita is the closest discovered sacrifice to Cuzco and was found with textiles of the wealthy, archaeologists believe that this could suggest she came from a noble Cuzco family. [5]

The body and the items were quickly transported to Arequipa to prevent thawing of the frozen specimen. The body was initially kept in a special refrigerator at the Catholic University. [7] Juanita's body was transported to the United States for a CT scan in 1996 and was then exhibited in Japan in 1999. [1] She is considered one of the most well-preserved mummies in the Andes.

Two more ice mummies, a young girl and a boy, were discovered in an archaeological expedition led by Dr. Reinhard and Prof. José Antonio Chávez in October 1995, and they recovered another female mummy on Ampato in December 1997. Volcanic ash from the nearby erupting volcano of Sabancaya induced ice melt in the area. This caused the Incan burial sites to collapse down into a gully or crater where they were soon discovered by Reinhard and his team. Reinhard published a detailed account of the discovery in his 2006 book entitled, The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes.

Body Edit

As Reinhard and Zárate struggled on Ampato's summit to lift the heavy bundle containing Juanita's body, they realized that her body mass had probably been increased by freezing of the flesh. When initially weighed in Arequipa, the bundle containing "Juanita" weighed over 90 pounds (40.82 kilos). Their realization turned out to be correct Juanita is almost entirely frozen, making her a substantial scientific find. Like only a few other high-altitude Inca mummies, Juanita was found frozen and thus her remains and garments were not desiccated like those of mummies found in other parts of the world. She was mummified by freezing conditions on the mountain top, instead of being artificially mummified, as is the case with Egyptian mummies. Her skin, organs, tissues, blood, hair, stomach contents, and garments are extremely well-preserved, offering scientists a rare glimpse into Inca culture during the reign of the Sapa Inca Pachacuti (reigned 1438–1471/1472).

Analysis of her stomach contents revealed that she ate a meal of vegetables six to eight hours before her death. [8] Some evidence suggests that she may have come from a noble Cusco family. Stable isotopic analysis of other child sacrifices in the area has found changes in diet within the last year of life to indicate whether they originated from common families. [9] This is usually indicated by the amount of meat protein consumed. Noble families would consume meat regularly whereas this may not be the case for a non-noble family. Since there is no specific analysis of Juanita it is inconclusive if she came from a noble family or not. However, analysis of similar child sacrifices in the region all indicate that at six months before their death they were in Cusco, likely for a ceremony before making their journey to the mountains. [9]

Adornments and grave goods Edit

Juanita was wrapped in a brightly coloured burial tapestry (or "aksu"). Her head was adorned with a cap made from the feathers of a red macaw, and she wore a lively woollen alpaca shawl fastened with a silver clasp. She was fully clothed in garments resembling the finest textiles from the Inca capital city of Cusco. These accoutrements were almost perfectly preserved, providing valuable insight into sacred Inca textiles and on how the Inca nobility dressed. Found with her in the burial tapestry was a collection of grave goods: bowls, pins, and figurines made of gold, silver, and shell.

Genetic analysis Edit

According to the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), the closest kin they could find in the database in 1996 were the Ngobe people of Panama, but the later research has shown her to share genetic patterns found in people from the Andes. Scientists at TIGR examined two mitochondrial DNA D loop sequences and found that Hypervariable region 1 (HV1) was consistent with mitochondrial haplogroup A2, one of the four Native American gene groups. Hypervariable region 2 (HV2) included a unique sequence not found in any of the current mitochondrial DNA databases. [10] Her haplotype is 16111T, 16223T, 16290T, 16319A. [11] In accordance with the genetic world map and genetic patterns, her HV2 DNA sequence was also related with the ancient races originally from Taiwan and Korea, which supports the theory that Paleo-Indians had Pacific links. [12] [13] [14]

Through extracting DNA from Mummy Juanita's well-preserved hair, scientists were able to logically determine her diet prior to the sacrifice. The analysis of her hair indicates that Juanita was eating foods such as animal protein and maize. These foods were the diet of the elite, unlike the standard Inca diet of vegetables. [15]

The final six to eight weeks of life for a sacrificed Incan child consisted of heavy use of drugs and alcohol. With a combination of coca and chicha alcohol, the children would be in a highly intoxicated psychological state. Markers in Juanita's hair indicate that she was given coca and alcohol prior to her death, suggesting that she was in a state of near unconsciousness. [15]

Radiologist Elliot K. Fishman concluded that she was killed by blunt trauma to the head. He observed that her cracked right eye socket and the two-inch fracture in her skull are injuries "typical of someone who has been hit by a baseball bat." The blow caused a massive hemorrhage, filling her skull with blood and pushing her brain to one side. [16] Death by trauma to the head was a common technique of sacrificing children in this era, along with strangulation and suffocation (burying alive). [17] [ circular reference ]

The ritual sacrifice called Capacocha (or Qhapaq hucha) was a key component to the Inca Empire. This ritual, which usually involved the sacrifice of children, was for celebratory events. These events included an annual or biennial event in the Incan calendar, the death of an emperor, the birth of a royal son, or a victory in battle, and were performed to prevent natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, droughts, earthquakes, and epidemics. [18] Beyond celebratory events and sacrifice for prevention, child sacrifice represented military and political expansion for the culture along with the empire’s ability to use coercion and control.

As tribute payment, Inca rulers ordered boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 16 to sacrifice. Evidence of strontium analysis suggests that children were picked from several different geographical areas, taken to the Inca capital, and undergo months of travel to the sacred location of the death. [18] Archaeologists have discovered through biochemical analysis that coca (the primary source of cocaine) and alcohol were commonly found in the children's systems. [19] Although archaeologists are unsure of why drugs and alcohol were used, some suggest that it was to put the chosen children in a stupor prior to death.

Juanita was killed as a practice of capacocha, or child sacrifice, to appease Inca Gods, or Apus. This practice often involves sacrificing a child at a huaca, or ceremonial shrine in a significant spiritual location, in this case Mt. Ampato. Children were selected as they were considered pure beings and worthy of giving to the Inca Gods. These children, like Juanita, once sacrificed become messengers to the Apu(s) and act as negotiators for the people. The people in turn would worship the sacrificed children in unison with the gods. Ceremonial offerings happened annually, seasonally, or upon special occasions. [6]

Juanita and several others were likely sacrificed to appease the Gods after volcanic eruptions on the nearby Misti (1440-1450) and Sabancaya (1466) volcanos. [20] Volcanic eruptions cause irregularities in climate that can last between 3–5 years depending on location and intensity. In these circumstances, precipitation patterns are altered due to particulate presence in the air. These periods are usually indicated by abnormal dryness or wetness. Overall, research has indicated that volcanic eruptions lead to a general trend of drought or less precipitation. Particulate from the explosions can also contaminate water supply and air quality. [21] This is further depicted by Reinhard's observations and understandings from the field site, "the sacrifices were made either during a lengthy period of extreme drought, during (or just after) volcanic eruptions or both. Only in such periods could the ground have been unfrozen enough to allow the Incas to build the sites and bury the offerings as they did. And this factor could explain their importance. Droughts and volcanic ash would kill off pasturage and pollute and deplete the water sources so critical to the villagers below". [6]

It is probable that Juanita was sacrificed in response to climatic irregularities to placate the Gods in return for water. [22] [6] Incan belief at the time was that mountains (and their spirits) controlled weather and water and, thus, were intertwined with the villages below. The prosperity of the crops and people depended on the approval of the mountain deity to provide water for their consumption and irrigation. Water is a life-giving source and was perceived to be connected with femininity and fertility. Therefore, the mountains that provided water were attributed to be female deities by the Incas. [22] In Southern Peru, it was believed that sacrificing a young female would appease the Mountain deity who would in turn provide a consistent water supply to the region. [23]

Others have suggested that child sacrifice could in part be used as a political strategy by Incan leaders to ensure control over the empire. Sacrifices during this time of empire expansion would infix a combination of respect and fear while further embedding devotion. [9]


Related

The Culture of Freshwater Pearls

The Sacrificial Ceremony

Ice Mummies of the Inca

Mountain Worship

The Incas worshipped the high peaks that pierce the South American skies. These rugged summits represented a means of approaching the Sun God, Inti, the center of their religion, and many sacrifices were made atop these cold and unpredictable pinnacles. Mountain deities were seen as lords of the forces of nature who presided over crops and livestock. In essence they were the protectors of the Inca people, the keepers of life who reached up toward the skies where the sacred condor soared.

Many theories exist about why the Incas performed ritual ceremonies, which sometimes included human sacrifices, at elevations approaching 23,000 feet. Most scholars agree that the purpose of the sacrifice, known as "capacocha," was to appease the mountain gods and to assure rain, abundant crops, protection, and order for the Inca people. Sacrifices often coincided with remarkable occasions: earthquakes, eclipses, droughts. On these occasions the Incas were required to offer valuables from the highest regions they could reach—the ice-clad summits of Andean peaks. Truly auspicious events, such as the death of an emperor, prompted human sacrifices, perhaps to provide an escort for the emperor on his journey to the Other World.

The frigid and dry mountain air kept the microbes that normally decay corpses at bay, preserving soft tissues like skin and hair.

The fact that many high elevation sacrificial sites are located near trans-mountain roads suggests that sacrifices were also made in conjunction with the expansion of the Inca civilization itself. The extensive roads in the southernmost regions were integral to the expansion of the empire southward. Especially important were the trans-mountain, or east-west, roads, which linked north-south running ranges and valleys over high-mountain passes. Near such routes, the Incas chose high peaks, climbed them, built their platforms, and made sacrifices, sometimes human, to assure safe continued passage and to bless the roads. The mummy of a young boy on Mount Aconcagua, discovered in 1985, could be one such sacrifice. His tomb is near one of the most important trans-mountain paths which today is virtually the same route as the major international highway linking Argentina and Chile.

Remarkable Discoveries

The first frozen high mountain Inca human sacrifice was found atop a peak in Chile in 1954. "La Momia del Cerro El Plomo," the Mummy of El Plomo Peak became its name, and until Juanita, it was heralded as the best preserved. Scientists were able to establish many of the El Plomo mummy's vital statistics: he was male, 8 or 9 years old, type O blood, and presumably from a wealthy family due to his portly physique.

A unique set of circumstances made the discovery of Juanita possible. The eruption of a nearby volcano, Mt. Sabancaya, produced hot ash, which slowly melted away the 500 years of accumulated ice and snow encasing the mummy. A brightly-colored burial tapestry, or "aksu" was revealed, the fresh hues remarkably preserved. Since the heavy winter storms had not yet covered the body, Dr. Reinhard was able to recover the mummy.

The fact that ice preserved the body makes Juanita a substantial scientific find. All other high-altitude Inca mummies have been completely desiccated—freeze-dried in a way—much like mummies found elsewhere in the world. Juanita, however, is almost entirely frozen, preserving her skin, internal organs, hair, blood, even the contents of her stomach. This offers scientists a rare glimpse into the life of these pre-Columbian people. DNA makeup can be studied, revealing where Juanita came from, perhaps even linking her to her living relatives. Stomach contents can be analyzed to reveal more about the Inca diet. Juanita is the closest sacrifice to Cuzco, the Inca capital. This, in addition to the fact that the clothing she was wearing resembles the finest textiles from that great city, suggests she may have come from a noble Cuzco family. The almost perfectly preserved clothing offer a storehouse of information, giving insight into sacred Inca textiles, as well as how the Inca nobility dressed.

It took incredible effort to hold sacrificial rituals in the thin air and life-threatening cold of the high Andes. At 20,000 feet, near the summit of Mt. Ampato where Juanita was found, Johan Reinhard discovered extensive camps or "rest stops" on the route to the ritual site at the summit. Evidence of Inca camp sites atop Ampato include remains of wooden posts for large, blanket-covered tents, stones used for tent platform floors, and an abundance of dried grass used for walkways and to insulate tent floors. These are heavy materials that must have been hauled many miles up the barren mountainside. The trek itself to the sacrificial site was a remarkable undertaking, involving whole entourages of priests and villagers, provisions, water, as well as symbolic items used in the ritual, all carried on the backs of hundreds of llamas and porters.

Johan Reinhard's climbing partner, Miguel Zí¡rate, on the slopes of Mt. Ampato

A Mummy Pair

A month after Reinhard's amazing discovery of Juanita, he returned to Ampato with a full archaeological team to explore Ampato further. This time, several thousand feet below the summit, they found two more mummy children, a girl and a boy. It is believed these may have been companion sacrifices to the more important sacrifice of Juanita on Ampato's summit. These children may have also been buried as a pair in a symbolic marriage. A Spanish soldier who witnessed such sacrifices wrote in 1551: "Many boys and girls were sacrificed in pairs, being buried alive and well dressed and adorned. items that a married Indian would possess." Buried with them were cloth-covered offering bundles, nearly 40 pieces of pottery, decorated wooden utensils, weaving tools, and even a pair of delicately woven sandals. At an elevation equal to that of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, these sacrificial burial sites have preserved the Inca past more vividly than any other discovery, adding a deeper understanding of one of the world's great civilizations.


Inca Child Sacrifice Victims Were Drugged

Mummy hair reveals that young victims were heavy users of coca and alcohol.

Three Inca mummies found near the lofty summit of Volcán Llullaillaco in Argentina were so well preserved that they put a human face on the ancient ritual of capacocha—which ended with their sacrifice.

Now the bodies of 13-year-old Llullaillaco Maiden and her younger companions Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl have revealed that mind-altering substances played a part in their deaths and during the year-long series of ceremonial processes that prepared them for their final hours.

Under biochemical analysis, the Maiden's hair yielded a record of what she ate and drank during the last two years of her life. This evidence seems to support historical accounts of a few selected children taking part in a year of sacred ceremonies—marked in their hair by changes in food, coca, and alcohol consumption—that would ultimately lead to their sacrifice. (Related: "Lofty Ambitions of the Inca.")

In Inca religious ideology, the authors note, coca and alcohol could induce altered states associated with the sacred. But the substances likely played a more pragmatic role as well, disorienting and sedating the young victims on the high mountainside to make them more accepting of their own grim fates.

The Maiden and her young counterparts, found in 1999, exist in a remarkable state of natural preservation due to frigid conditions just below the mountain's 22,110-foot (6,739-meter) summit.

"In terms of mummies that are known around the world, in my opinion she has to be the best preserved of any of the mummies that I'm aware of," said forensic and archaeological expert Andrew Wilson, of the University of Bradford (U.K.). "She looks almost as if she's just fallen asleep."

It is this incredible level of preservation that made possible the kinds of technical analysis that, paired with the pristine condition of the artifacts and textiles arrayed in the tomb-like structure, allowed experts to re-create the events that took place in this thin air some 500 years ago.

"I suppose that's what makes this all the more chilling," Wilson added. "This isn't a desiccated mummy or a set of bones. This is a person this is a child. And this data that we've generated in our studies is really pointing to some poignant messages about her final months and years."

Because hair grows about a centimeter a month and remains unchanged thereafter, the Maiden's long, braided locks contain a time line of markers that record her diet, including consumption of substances like coca and alcohol in the form of chicha, a fermented brew made from maize.

The markers show she appears to have been selected for sacrifice a year before her actual death, Wilson explained. During this period her life changed dramatically, as did her surging consumption of both coca and alcohol, which were then controlled substances not available for everyday use. "We suspect the Maiden was one of the acllas, or chosen women, selected around the time of puberty to live away from her familiar society under the guidance of priestesses," he said, noting that this practice is described in the accounts of Spaniards who chronicled information on such rites given to them by the Inca.

A previous DNA and chemical study, also led by Wilson, examined changes in the Maiden's diet and found marked improvements during the year before her death, including the consumption of elite foods like maize and animal protein, perhaps llama meat. Now it's clear that the Maiden's consumption of coca also rose heavily throughout the year before her death, spiking dramatically 12 months before her death and again 6 months before her death. (Related: "Thousands of Inca Mummies Raised From Their Graves.")

"These data fit with the suggestion that she was perhaps leading an ordinary or even peasant lifestyle up to that point, but a year before her death she's selected, effectively removed from that existence and the lifestyle that was familiar to her, and projected into a different existence," Wilson said. "And now we see a massive change in terms of the use of coca."

The Maiden consistently used coca at a high level during the last year of her life, but her alcohol consumption surged tellingly only in her last weeks.

"We're probably talking about the last six to eight weeks, which show that very altered existence, that she's either compliant in taking this or is being made to ingest such a large quantity of alcohol. Certainly in her final weeks she's again entering a different state, probably one in which these chemicals, the coca and the chicha alcohol, might be used in almost a controlling way in the final buildup to the culmination of this capacocha rite and her sacrifice."

On the day of the Maiden's death the drugs may have made her more docile, putting her in a stupor or perhaps even rendering her unconscious. That theory seems to be supported by her relaxed, seated position inside the tomb-like structure, and the fact that the artifacts around her were undisturbed as was the feathered headdress she wore as she drifted off to death. Chewed coca leaves were found in the mummy's mouth upon her discovery in 1999.

The younger children show lower levels of coca and alcohol use, perhaps due to their lesser status in the ritual itself, or to their differences in age and size. "Perhaps as an older child there was a greater need to bring the Maiden to that point of sedation," Wilson said.

And while other capacocha sites show evidence of violence, like cranial trauma, these children were left to slip off peacefully. "Either they got it right, in terms of perfecting the mechanisms of performing this type of sacrifice, or these children went much more quietly," Wilson explained.

Kelly Knudson, an archaeological chemist at Arizona State University, wasn't involved with the research but said the exciting study shows how archaeological science can help us understand both the intimate details of human lives and larger ancient societies.

"Seeing increases in both the consumption of alcohol and coca is very interesting, both in terms of the capacocha sacrifices and their lives before they died, and also in terms of what it can tell us about Inca coercion and control," Knudson said.

The system of control that brought these children to a remote mountaintop at extreme altitude shows all the hallmarks of state support at the highest level, the study's authors suggest, and may have occurred as part of a military and political expansion of the Cuzco-based empire that took place just prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

"The sort of logistical support needed even today to work at this altitude is extensive," Wilson explained. "And here we're talking about evidence that points to the highest possible, imperial-level support. There are artifacts and clothes that are elite and refined products coming from effectively the four corners of the Inca Empire."

Such artifacts include figures made of spondylus shells, brought from the coast, and feathered headdresses from the Amazon Basin. Well-crafted statues of gold and silver, adorned with finely woven miniature clothing, were also available only to the highest levels of society. "I think the whole assemblage represents their status and also the symbolism that this was undertaken under the highest possible sanction," he added. Wilson and his co-authors suggest that such sacrifices may have been a highly stratified means to help exert social control over large areas of conquered territories.

(Last year a study published in PloS ONE showed that the Maiden was suffering from a lung infection at the time of the sacrifice.)

Evidence Supports Early Spanish Chronicles

Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, discovered the mummies in 1999 with colleague Constanza Ceruti, of the Catholic University of Salta (Argentina).

Reinhard, a co-author of the new study, said he's particularly interested in how the findings compare to what's been written in the historical chronicles of such ceremonies, penned by early Spanish explorers to the New World. "They describe how these ceremonies took place, but they weren't firsthand accounts no Spanish ever saw one of these personally," Reinhard said. "They depended on what the Inca had told them about what happened."

(In the mid-16th century, for example, Juan de Betanzos wrote of widespread child sacrifices, up to a thousand individuals, on the testimony of his wife—who had previously been married to none other than the Inca Emperor Atahualpa.)

Now the data appear to match the kinds of events described in the chronicles, Reinhard said. "All of a sudden you have this picture where you can almost see what they are going through. Increased attention is paid to them in terms of better food and coca, which was used in ceremonies and wasn't in very common use. This kind of increased attention paid to these children is exactly what you read in the chronicles."

For example, Reinhard said, it's not surprising to see an increase in coca consumption during the year before the death of a chosen child like the Maiden because of the tales told in the chronicles.

"They talk about pilgrimages going to Cuzco and a series of ceremonies during which these children would be sent from one place to another on long pilgrimages. I think it's also interesting that there is a six-month period associated with these largest spikes in coca use," he added. "It could be six months related to something else, but a hypothesis to throw out there is that this corroborates historical accounts that some of these Virgins of the Sun were taken to solstice ceremonies during the year before they were taken off to their deaths."

Today the mummies reside in the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM) in Salta, Argentina. The extent to which their physical remains may support historical and archaeological records is exciting, Wilson added, but it is also chilling that the children remain so recognizably human even in death.

"For me it's almost like the children are able to reach out to us to tell us their own stories," he said. "Hair, especially, is such a personal thing, and here it's able to provide some compelling evidence and tell us a very personal story even after five centuries."


Royal Mummies

Due to looting by the conquistadores and subsequent grave robbers, very few tombs of the aristocracy have been discovered intact, but we do know about the royal mummies of the Inca capital Cuzco from written accounts. At the Coricancha religious complex at Cuzco, there was a dedicated space for the mummified remains of former Inca emperors and their wives, known as mallquis. Within these chambers, the mummified rulers were surrounded by their weapons and artistic treasures, as the Incas believed that the dead ruler remained the owner of the property he had accumulated in life.

Rather than the simple desiccation method, royal mummies got the deluxe treatment of entrails and organ removal, embalming, and skin tanning they could even be set for eternity in a life-like posture. These mummies were brought out of storage during special ceremonies, such as those celebrating the solstices, and placed in a ring in order of their age in the open air of the main plaza, the Awkaypata or ‘Terrace of Repose’. Each had a dedicated attendant who interpreted their wishes and stood by with a fly whisk. These regal mummies were dressed in fine clothes, gold ornaments, and exotic feathers. As though still living, offerings of food and drink were made to them, and the great achievements they had made during their reigns were read out for all to hear. Thus, a link was forged between present and past generations.

So venerated were these royal mummies that when the Spanish arrived, they were repeatedly moved around Cuzco to avoid their capture and destruction by the Europeans, who considered their reverence as idolatry. Ultimately, though, they were discovered and destroyed in 1559 CE. One Spaniard, Garcilaso de la Vega, described them as follows:

Their bodies were so perfect that they lacked neither hair, eyebrows nor eyelashes. They were in clothes such as they had worn when alive…They were seated in the way Indian men and women usually sit, with their arms crossed over their chests, the right over the left, and their eyes cast down…I remember touching a finger of the hand of Huayna-Capac. It was hard and rigid, like that of a wooden statue. The bodies weighed so little that any Indian could carry them from house to house in his arms or on his shoulders. They carried them wrapped in white sheets through the streets and squares, the Indians falling to their knees and making reverences with groans and tears… (D’Altroy, 97-99)


Examined Cases of Inca Human Adult and Child Sacrifice

Inca priests took children to high mountaintops for sacrifice, in an exceedingly long and arduous journey, feeding them coca leaves to increase the likelihood of their reaching the burial site alive, and then alcohol. They were killed by a blow to the head, strangulation, or simply by leaving them in the extreme cold where they would die of exposure.

Early colonial Spanish missionaries wrote about this practice but only recently have archaeologists such as Johan Reinhard begun to find the bodies of these victims on Andean mountaintops, naturally mummified due to the freezing temperatures and dry windy mountain air.

Examination by the use of high-resolution diachronic data of the frozen bodies of three children aged from 4 to 13, found in Argentina, revealed that coca and alcohol ingestion played a key part in the months and weeks leading up to the children’s deaths. These data, combined with archaeological and radiological evidence, threw new light on the Incan practice of child sacrifice that follows the Capacocha (or Qhapaq hucha) rite, crucial among Incas, described by the Spaniards, particularly Cristobal de Molina.

In another study, there is historical, archaeological, anatomical and pathological evidence for human sacrifice at the central Peruvian coastal site of Pachacamac of high numbers of both adult and children victims of Inca human sacrifice.

John Verano, of Tulane University’s Department of Anthropology, has also been involved in this kind of research.

Six frozen mummies of people sacrificed to Incan gods were found by archaeologists on a volcano in Peru, following previous similar discoveries. ABC says:

The Incas, whose empire covered most of the Andes along South America’s western coast before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, practiced human sacrifice to appease their gods.

Many mummies from Peru’s pre-Columbian Indian cultures have been found, but few have been frozen. Frozen mummies are better preserved and can reveal more information, scientists say.


Inca child mummy reveals lost genetic history of South America

Back in 1985, hikers climbing Argentina’s Aconcagua mountain stumbled upon a ghastly surprise: the frozen corpse of a 7-year-old boy. It was apparent that he’d been there for a long time, so the hikers notified archaeologists, who carefully excavated the body. They determined that the Aconcagua boy, as he came to be known, was sacrificed as part of an Incan ritual 500 years ago and had been naturally mummified by the mountain’s cold, dry environment. Now, a new analysis of the Aconcagua boy’s mitochondrial DNA reveals that he belonged to a population of native South Americans that all but disappeared after the Spanish conquest of the New World.

The Aconcagua boy died as part of an Incan ritual of child sacrifice called capacocha. Children and adolescents were taken to the tops of high peaks and left to die of exposure or killed outright the Aconcagua boy was likely executed with a blow to the head. Several capacocha mummies have been found on mountains scattered throughout Inca territory, but the Aconcagua boy is “one of the best preserved,” says Antonio Salas, a human geneticist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and an author of the new study. The boy died 5300 meters above sea level in “one of the driest climates that exist,” Salas says. That gave him hope that the mummy might still contain traces of DNA.

It did. Salas and his team extracted the mummy’s complete mitochondrial genome—comprising 37 genes passed down solely from the mother—from one of its lungs. Sampling an internal organ was a good choice for minimizing the risk of contamination, says Bastien Llamas, a geneticist at the University of Adelaide in Australia who studies ancient South American populations. In the years since the mummy was found, “you assume … no one has touched the lung with their own hands, so there is no contamination from the people who have been working on it,” says Llamas, who was not involved in the study. But to make sure his research team wasn’t contaminating the find with its DNA, Salas genotyped every last one of them.

When Salas sequenced the Aconcagua boy’s mitochondrial DNA, it quickly became clear his defenses had worked. The mummy had a genome unlike any Salas had ever seen. The boy’s pattern of genetic variations placed him in a population called C1b, a common lineage in Mesoamerica and the Andes that dates all the way back to the earliest Paleoindian settlements, more than 18,000 years ago. But C1b in itself is very diverse—as its members spread throughout Central and South America, smaller groups became isolated from one another and started developing their own particular genetic variations. As a result, C1b contains many genetically distinct subgroups. The Aconcagua boy’s genome didn’t fit into any of them. Instead, he belonged to a population of native South Americans that had never been identified. Salas and his team dubbed this genetic group C1bi, which they say likely arose in the Andes about 14,000 years ago. They detail their findings today in Scientific Reports.

When Salas combed through genetic databases, ancient and modern, he found just four more individuals who appear to belong to C1bi. Three are present-day people from Peru and Bolivia, whereas another sample comes from an individual from the ancient Wari Empire, which flourished from 600 to 1000 C.E. and predated the Inca in Peru. Clearly, C1bi is extremely rare today, but the fact that it has now popped up in two ancient DNA samples suggests that it could have been more common in the past, says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist who studies the Americas at Mexico’s National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato and was not involved in the current work. If you sample just one or two individuals, “what are the chances that you pick the rare guy?” he says. “Most likely, you’re picking the common guy.”

Llamas is not surprised that a potentially common pre-Columbian genetic group all but disappeared after the Spanish arrived. “Up to 90% of native South Americans died very quickly” after the conquest, mostly from epidemic disease, he says. “You can imagine that a lot of genetic diversity was lost as well.” Especially in the Americas, where such an extreme demographic collapse was followed by centuries of mixing by European, Amerindian, and African groups, the genes of living people “aren’t always a faithful representation of what happened in the past,” Salas says. The Aconcagua boy’s genome, on the other hand, is “a window to 500 years ago.”

It’s as if “the Inca put genetic samples in deep freeze for us,” agrees Andrew Wilson, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom who studies capacocha mummies and was not involved in the current work. Salas doesn’t intend to waste the opportunity. He is already working on the complete nuclear genome of the Aconcagua boy—which would be even more informative about his family tree and his own unique genetic makeup. He also hopes to sequence the DNA of all the microbes preserved in the mummy’s gut, including his microbiome and any infectious germs he might have been carrying. That could help scientists understand how microorganisms—both the ones that hurt us and the ones that help us—have evolved over time. Wilson hopes similar studies can be done on other capacocha mummies. “They are certainly remarkable messengers from the past.”


Inca child sacrifices were drunk, stoned for weeks before death

Three Inca children found mummified atop a 20,000-foot volcano in South America consumed increasing amounts of coca leaf and corn beer for up to a year before they were sacrificed, according to a new study.

Sedation by the plant and alcohol combined with the frigid, high-altitude setting may explain how the children were killed. There is no evidence for direct violence, the researchers noted.

The coca leaf and corn beer consumption rises about six months before death and then skyrockets in the final weeks, especially for the eldest, a 13-year-old girl known as the "Ice Maiden."

"She was probably heavily sedated by the point at which she succumbs to death," Andrew Wilson, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom and the study's lead author, told NBC News.

The finding is based on detailed analyses of hair taken from the more than 500-year-old mummified remains, which also include a four-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy. The boy and girl were perhaps the maiden's attendants.

The data corroborate earlier research showing the children ate more meat and corn in their final year. Taken together, the studies suggest the peasant children were selected for the ritual sacrifice and lived a high-status life until their death near the top of the Llullaillacao Volcano in Argentina, Wilson said.

He and colleagues present the new analysis in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Far from the mountain
The corn beer chicha and coca leaf, the plant that contains cocaine, are prominent features of Andean culture, so finding their signature "is not a surprise in itself," John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans who was not involved in the new study, told NBC News.

"But it is particularly interesting the level of detail at which (the researchers) are able to look at it," he added. "It allows them to hypothesize why the older child of the three was drinking so much chicha in her last month of life and what that might have indicated about her lifestyle and activities."

According to Wilson, the story likely begins "far from the mountain" in the Inca capital of Cusco, Peru, where the Ice Maiden was taken to live "under the guardianship of priestesses" and passed her time weaving textiles and brewing chicha.

At about six months before death, there was a ceremony that involved ritual hair cutting — some clippings were found with the mummies — and that coincides with a peak in coca consumption.

The coca consumption and alcohol use then begin to rise sharply again in the weeks before death, probably as the Ice Maiden and two younger children were marched from Cusco to the volcano, stopping along the way for ceremonies that likely involved large amounts of coca and chicha.

The researchers suspect the Inca rulers wanted the sacrifice to be known throughout the empire, which was expanding southward at the time of the mummies' death. The Llullaillacao Volcano is at the empire's southern extent.

"It is something that is designed to create this climate of fear and to basically help build … new allegiances," Wilson said.

These festivals en route to the mountain, Verano noted, could explain why the Ice Maiden was drinking so much corn beer along with elevated coca chewing in her final weeks.

It's also possible, he added, that "she had a drinking problem. Maybe she started drinking beer the last year of her life and just found it to be pleasant or particularly soothing."

Final sacrifice
The mummies were discovered in 1999 and are considered among the best preserved mummies from anywhere in the world.

The Ice Maiden was inside a tomb structure, surrounded by offerings from the four corners of the Inca empire such as seashells, bird feathers, coca and corn. Her head is bowed as if she fell asleep, sedated, and succumbed to the biting cold and thin air as is inevitable at such altitude.

The levels of alcohol and coca are higher for the older girl, a finding that may "support the idea of her being calmed intentionally," Verano said. "It could be that she had a better idea of what was going to happen to her. She was older."

The data, he added, allows researchers to better imagine the lives of these children, but noted that their story is one of interpretation. There are no eyewitness accounts.

"For me," Wilson said, "it really does send somewhat of a shiver down my spine … It is almost the children being able to speak to us directly through some of this data, some of the things they experienced."

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.


Watch the video: Is the Inca Maiden the Worlds Best-Preserved Mummy?