A new analysis of three immaculately-preserved 500 year-old mummies found in 1999 atop a 22,000 foot volcano in South America reveals that Inca children were given increasing amounts of coca leaf and corn beer for up to a year before being sacrificed.
The three children, who were found in an ice pit atop Llullaillaco volcano in the Argentinian Andes, were part of a sacrificial harvest ritual called capacocha. For the ceremony, the children were taken to the top of the volcano where they were given chica, a maize beer, until they passed out. Once unconscious, priests placed them in underground niches where they froze to death.
The 13-year-old "Ice Maiden" with remnants of coca leaves still in her mouth.
Owing to the cold climate, the mummies were found in excellent condition. And in fact, they're considered among the most pristine mummies in the world. The bodies date to around the 15th century during the time of the Inca empire, just prior to the arrival of Europeans.
The "Lightning Girl", whose corpse was struck by lightning.
Physical and DNA analysis, including and especially forensic tests of chemicals found in the hair, showed that the children weren’t related to each other, nor were they physically abused. They were actually very well looked after, exhibiting a decent layer of fat, and with beautifully groomed hair and clothes.
But flecks of coca leaf (the plant that contains cocaine) were found in and around one of the specimen’s mouth, an indication that she was chewing on it right before she died. Archaeologists speculate that, given the long journey up the volcano, the coca leaf could have been used to combat altitude sickness. It could have also been used as part of the capacocha ceremony. The drugs may have also been used to make the children more compliant.
Interestingly, the two youngest children, a four year-old girl and a five year-old boy, drank alcohol and chewed coca at a regular pace during the last nine months of their lives. But the older child, a 13 year-old girl dubbed the Ice Maiden, consumed increasing amounts during the last six months of her life; she was probably heavily sedated at the time of her death. The levels of alcohol and coca were higher for the Maiden than the two younger children.
What’s more, she was likely selected up to a year before being sacrificed, likely on account of her virginal status. She may have even been taken away from her family. The children may have been her attendants.
It’s also possible, of course, that the Ice Maiden had a drinking problem, and that she started drinking beer in greater excess during the last year of her life. But that said, these substances were typically reserved for the elite and were often used in Inca rituals.
Read the entire study at PNAS: “Archaeological, radiological, and biological evidence offer insight into Inca child sacrifice.”
Photos: Johan Reinhard.