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1995, anthropologists Johan Reinhard and Miguel Zarate were climbing mount Ampato just as a hobby, but they managed to stumble upon the frozen mummies of three Inca children. At first sight, Reinhard thought that the corpses were only a few months old based on how well they were preserved. Surprisingly enough, once the corpses had been recovered it was discovered that they had been sitting on the summit of Mount Ampato for over 500 years.

After the analysis done by experts, it turns out that the intact mummies represented a 13-year-old girl, a 5-year-old girl, and a 4-year-old boy separately entombed within a shrine near the 22,100-foot (6,739 meters) summit of the Argentinian volcano Llullaillaco. In 2013 a more detailed analysis uncovered the faith of these children, showing evidence that they had been drugged with something similar to cocaine and intoxicated with alcohol. This was an important part of the sacrificial ritual performed by the Inca.

the mummies of a boy and girl found on the summit of Llullaillaco with Johan Reinhard right next to them (Source: PennMuseum)

Despite this, the archeologists were surprised by how well the bodies were kept preserved in ice for so long. They preserved so well that the organs of all the children including the stomach were fully intact. These mummies allowed historians to get a better understanding of the Inca culture as their language known as Quechua, had no written form, therefore there were no texts left behind that explained with exactitude their rituals.

The Inca culture

The Inca culture is very different from most of the other cultures and religions that were present during its existence. The Inca Empire was formed in 1438 and was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. Located in the west of South America, the Inca ruled the region through conquests as well as peaceful assimilation from time to time. Despite their glorious reign, the Inca Empire collapsed in 1533 when Spanish conquerors annihilated most of them in a vicious war.

Inca people originated from what we know today as Peru. Religion was very sacred within the Inca culture. Their God was known as Inti (Inca Sun God) or also known as Apu-punchau. During some of their festive days, the Inca people would offer sacrifices to their God in order to receive good fortune such as enough rain and sun for the crops to grow.

Johan Reinhard clearing the face of Mummy Juanita (Source: Rolex Awards)

It was quite common that Aztec cultures such as the Inca would sacrifice animals, but the Inca culture went further, showing their good faith in their God by sacrificing what they loved the most, their children. Each type of sacrifice had a different meaning behind it. Children were sacrificed in order to honor the Gods and ensure the good health of the King.

Child Sacrifices

Not any child could be sacrificed to the Gods, there were specific criteria based on which children were chosen to be sacrificed. Archeological expert Andrew Wilson had discovered markers on the mummies which indicated that the children were chosen at least one year prior to the sacrafice. Based on the DNA analyses, the diet of the children had been changed one year prior to the sacrifice from potatoes and other vegetables to a diet more right in protein such as red meat.

Llullaillaco Maiden being analyzed by experts (Source:PennMuseum)

Besides this large quantities of coca and alcohol were identified. The coca bean or Erythroxylum coca was used very often within the Inca culture for rituals in order to create various types of drugs. Today, the coca bean is used to produce cocaine. To these types of cultures, drugs were a way to get closer to Gods on a spiritual level.

Wilson also mentioned that the final six to eight weeks of life for these Inca children before the sacrifice was filled with an intoxicated psychological state altered by the chemical reaction of coca and chica alcohol. Right before the sacrifice, the children were given a mixture of alcohol and coca in a mixture that was supposed to make the child fall into a “permanent sleep”.

The researchers discovered a sizeable coca quid (lump for chewing) in between the teeth of the Maiden Incan mummy, suggesting the child was sedated when she died some 500 years ago. (Image credit: Johan Reinhard)

The children were given wads of coca to open their lungs at high altitudes, it works like a blood irrigator. By the time they got to the top, they were probably inches away from unconscious for a lack of oxygen, which was supposed to put them in that permanent sleep. The analysis of Llullaillaco Maiden had shown that she still had that lump of coca in her mouth. Juanita was the only one that didn’t have any coca in her mouth.

The mummified body of Juanita (Source: PennMuseum)

Radiologist Elliot Fishman discovered that Juanita’s death was due to a massive hemorrhage from a club blow to the head. This was most probably done to the children that refused the drugs and didn’t allow the sacrificial ritual to go as planned. Experts estimate that there may be hundreds of Inca children mummified in the mountain peaks of the Andes still waiting to be discovered.

Most of the mummies that have been uncovered look as if they are still in their eternal sleep rather than dead. Uncovering more mummies like these ones will help to paint a better picture towards this sacrificial ritual as well as towards the Inca culture as a whole.

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