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Llullaillaco Andean Mummies : Inca Child Sacrifice ?

Andean mummies

The image can be shocking: that of these small bodies kept in the cold. No less than 25 of them have been unearthed in the Andes. Witnesses of sacrificial practices?

The 15-year-old teenage girl, the 7-year-old boy and the 6-year-old girl accompanying him are speechless when they hear these words: « You have to prepare. The Inca has appointed you to be his messengers to the gods. » Without even realizing what is happening to them, they already know their fate is sealed.

All three are considered to be physically perfect and totally pure. In the high nobility of Cuzco, their parents taught them that it is a great honor to be chosen to represent the Inca to the gods. But at the same time, they are terrified, because this choice is synonymous with death.

In the days that follow, festivals and parades are given in the Inca capital in honor of their courage. Then the trip is organized, according to an agreed ritual, and soon it is the departure. The Inca, a delegation of nobles, the priests of the Sun and the three children leave Cuzco on foot for a long trek in the Andean mountains that will last almost a year. During these months, the three children who had previously received simple potato-based food now enjoy more elaborate dishes, enriched with corn and dried llama meat. As their route takes them to the high peaks of the Cordillera, they begin to consume coca leaves, to fight against altitude sickness, fatigue and feelings of hunger or thirst.

The moccasins of the last trip

When they finally reach the top of the Llullaillaco volcano, at an altitude of 6,739 meters, the Capacocha ceremony is quickly organized. The children put on the unku, the sleeveless shirt reserved for sacred ceremonies - larger than their size so that they can continue to grow after their death -, they put on new moccasins intended for their journey to the next world, then are force-fed with chicha, the sacred drink made from fermented corn. At this altitude, the cold is terrible and soon it plunges the three children into an eternal sleep. To close the ceremony, their bodies are buried at a depth of five feet, with jewelry, gold and silver statuettes, as well as some food. After which the Inca and those who accompany him extensively honor these three new "ambassadors of the afterlife".

In the Inca Empire, sacrifices are among the most practiced rituals. They are akin to the cult of the Sun: the latter gives life to men, in return, marking their total devotion to the Sun God, men give him lives. Most often, this involves sacrifices of animals - llamas, rabbits or birds - which can be performed daily. But in some exceptional cases humans are also sacrificed, most often to appease divine wrath after a natural disaster, as a cyclical offering according to astral configurations, or to symbolize a purification.

Child sacrifices are extremely rare, but more meaningful than those of adults, because being purer than their elders they are deified and become representatives of the people living among the gods. In some cases the nobles give one of their children to the Inca to be sacrificed, in other circumstances this choice is forced upon them. Over the past century, twenty-five mummies have been discovered in the Andes, at 14 different sites. The National Geographic Society-supported archaeologist John Reinhard alone has unearthed some 18 child mummies since 1995. Most of them, buried at very high altitudes, were frozen and remarkably preserved for more than five hundred years. Obviously, some of these children died naturally from hypothermia, others were severely hit on the head, or were buried alive. In many cases, blood and organ remains were used for DNA testing.

The three mummies of children discovered in 1999 at the top of the Llullaillaco volcano, perfectly preserved, are exhibited in a museum in Salta, Argentina, specially built for them in order to respect very harsh climatic conditions (one body exposed at a time, under a bell at -20 degree celsius, in an atmosphere composed of 98% nitrogen and a humidity rate of 40%) that does not affect their conservation.