The hot news today is the recent PNAS publication of the results of an extensive interdisciplinary study to learn more about Incan child sacrifice. For a decade and a half, the child mummies excavated from the Andes in Argentina have captivated researchers with the high preservation, unique burial, and lack of visible cause of death. It was debated how these children were buried so high on the mountain, why they were placed in this unique manner, what the purpose of the burial was, and how they finally died. Intensive study has started to answer some of these questions.
The study by Wilson et al. (2013) involved archaeological, radiological, and biological research on three individual mummies: the 13 year old “Llullaillaco Maiden,” the 4 to 5 year old “Llullaillaco Boy,” and the 4 to 5 year old “Lightning Girl”. The burials were found at 25 meters below the 6,739 meter summit of Llullaillaco, which meant the flesh was frozen and therefore intact. The children were found in chambers made from natural niches in the bedrock from 1.2 to 2.2 meters below the surface. The Llullaillaco Boy was found to the southwest, the Lightning Girl to the east, and the Maiden was in the north burial. Artifacts found with the remains include wooden drinking vessels (keros), ceramics, and richly decorated textile bags that held hair, coca, and foodstuffs like maize, peanuts, and camelid meat. The children were treated differently based on age, with the Maiden receiving more grave goods and better treatment prior to death than the other two, evidenced best by the intricate braiding of her hair versus the nit infested hair of the boy. A previous study by Wilson et al. (2007) found that in general prior to their deaths their diet increased in animal proteins and they were being fed better, higher status foods. This first study also revealed that the children were not local to the area they were buried in, and had no biological relationship to one another.
This study focuses on the ritual itself and the changes the sub-adults went prior to their deaths. First, they were chosen for these roles at least a year prior to their deaths, a chance evidenced by an improved diet. The posture of the Maiden, slumped forward with crossed legs and arms resting on them, suggests that she was highly sedated while she was placed there. Analysis revealed all three children had very high levels of coca and alcohol within their systems, and had been ingesting these for a number of months prior to their deaths with a marked increase in consumption immediately before. The alcohol would have decreased their ability to shiver and hastens death due to cold exposure, though the coca would increase blood flow and have the opposite effect- it is unknown how this may have contributed to death but it is certain that the substances would have left the individuals sedated and unable to comprehend their situation. The position and lack of displacement of the Maiden suggest that she was not conscious when she was placed within the tomb, though whether this is because she was already dead or just unconscious from the drugs is unknown. Based on her intestinal contents she died 2-7 hours after her last meal.
Wilson et al. (2013) are very careful in their language regarding the term ‘sacrifice’. Especially in sub-adults, terms like sacrifice, victim or offering can create specific connotations and can create moral judgements about the culture. They make clear that what occurred here was part of a centralized ritual practice meant to strategically create ties within the expanding Incan empire. Archaeologists note that this was a period of major expansion and change in the Incan Empire, with their power based on the high levels of social stratiﬁcation, and forced labor and tribute of material and human resources. The placement of these sacrifices on tall mountains would have been a visible reminder to the surrounding people of the power and ideology of the Incan Empire. Being a part of the empire meant major political and economic benefits, at the expense of the requirement of tribute and some level of fear. We don’t know exactly why these individuals were selected, though likely it was a part of this strategy to create an integrated network. As study on these individuals continues, it will be interesting to determine how they vary from other high altitude Andean mummies. One thing in particular I would be interested in knowing is how the rituals varied by age. We know the Maiden received better hair care and higher amounts of drugs, but I wonder if this was related to age or who she was in life?
What I really like about this article is that they truly take an interdisciplinary approach to create a well rounded careful argument about the final moments of the lives of these children. The archaeology helps understand the context, the radiology shows the condition of the bodies without disturbing them, and the biology aids in knowing what they were eating, how much the coca and alcohol affected them, and where they came from. A single perspective wouldn’t have been able to bring this much depth to a sensitive subject.
Wilson AS, Taylor T, Ceruti MC, Chavez JA, Reinhard J, Grimes V, Meier-Augenstein W, Cartmell L, Stern B, Richards MP, Worobey M, Barnes I, & Gilbert MT (2007). Stable isotope and DNA evidence for ritual sequences in Inca child sacrifice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (42), 16456-61 PMID: 17923675
Wilson AS, Taylor T, Ceruti MC, Chavez JA, Reinhard J, Grimes V, Meier-Augenstein W, Cartmell L, Stern B, Richards MP, Worobey M, Barnes I, & Gilbert MT (2013). Archaeological, radiological, and biological evidence
offer insight into Inca child sacriﬁce Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1305117110