Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Highest Dig Yields Inka Sacrifices Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Angela M.H. Schuster

[image] Johan Reinhard with 500-year-old Inka mummies (© 1999 National Geographic Society) [LARGER IMAGE]

The perfectly preserved bodies of two Inka girls and a boy have been found atop the 22,000-foot Andean volcano Llullaillaco in northwestern Argentina. Discovered by archaeologist Johan Reinhard of the West Virginia-based Mountain Institute and Argentine archaeologist Constanza Ceruti, the children, thought to have been between 8 and 15 years old, were sacrificed as offerings to the mountain gods some 500 years ago. Bundled in layers of woven cloth, their bodies froze in the cold, dry air atop the peak shortly after death.

In addition to the mummies, which had been placed atop a stone platform, the site yielded bundles of exquisite textiles, ceramic vessels containing offerings of meat jerky, a pair of moccasins, and 36 small gold, silver, and shell statues of humans and llamas, many of which had been clothed in woven garments. "The manner in which the offerings were arranged attests the care taken in preparation of the sacrifices," said Reinhard, noting that all of the llama statues had been lined up as if part of a caravan. CAT-scans, conducted on the mummies soon after their discovery two weeks ago, revealed intact organs with blood still present in the heart and lungs, and skin so well preserved that fine hair on the arms could be discerned. One girl's body had been slightly damaged by a lightning strike; the other had a head that was deliberately deformed at birth into a conical shape. The latter was clothed in a beautiful yellow mantle and wore a white feathered headdress.

Capac cocha, or the offering of human sacrifices to the mountain gods, was an integral part of the religion of the Inka, whose empire dominated Andean South America until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. Mountains were the abodes of those that controlled the forces of nature. Volcanic eruptions, in particular, could spell disaster, and for this reason the mountains needed to be placated. To be chosen as a sacrificial offering was considered an honor among the Inka.

"These are the best-preserved Inka mummies we have ever found," said Reinhard, who has discovered numerous Inka mummies, including "Juanita the Ice Maiden" an 18-year-old sacrifice victim found atop the Peruvian peak Nevada de Ampato in 1995. Reinhard, notes, however, that the mummies had been buried under more than five feet of rock, which is why they had escaped the attention of looters and even one of his earlier expedition parties. The remains of a camp, presumably used by the participants in the sacrifice ceremony, was found at the 7,000-foot level. The newfound mummies will be taken to Catholic University in Salta, Argentina, for unwrapping and study.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America