Religious sacrifice—just those two words are enough to send shivers down your spine. The death of a young boy or girl under any circumstances is a tragedy. But the idea of killing a child to honor a higher power seems completely, horrifyingly incomprehensible in this day and age. Not just because children are the picture of innocence, but because death has robbed them of their future and their promise. Ancient cultures, however, believed in sacrifice, of giving up young life to pay tribute. And that is what makes the discovery of the girl known as the Maiden—a perfectly preserved 500-year-old sacrificial teen-aged victim—so shocking. How could this girl with lovely black hair be drugged, plied with alcohol and forced to die? Scientists have spent years finding what happened to the girl, known as the Llullaillaco Maiden. And what they’ve learned, by today’s standards, is utterly heartbreaking and shocking!
The Maiden was discovered along with two other children in 1999. Initially dubbed Los Ninos—the Spanish word for “the children”—archeologists found them entombed high in the Andes mountains, just below the 22,000-foot peak shy of Mount Llullaillaco in Argentina. Scientists were stunned at how well-preserved they were. The recognizable condition of the Children humanized them, and the Maiden’s two, smaller and younger compatriots quickly assumed individual identities, too: The Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl—so named because physical evidence suggests she was struck by a bolt while exposed on the mountain.
When you think of mummies, it’s likely you are faced with the image of an ancient Egyptian king or queen wrapped from head-to-toe in cloth. Or possibly a Hollywood version of a thoroughly bandaged member of the walking dead. The Children weren’t swathed in gauze or any protective clothing meant to preserve their 500-year-old bodies. They didn’t need any embalming fluid either. No, the thing that kept them in such pristine condition—their hair still on their head, their skin in place, their blood still in their veins, and internal organs still intact—was the very thing that killed them. The frigid air of the high Andes Mountains.
The Children weren’t sacrificed in a dramatic fashion before a crowd of faithful believers. Instead, experts in Incan culture believe the tragic trio were paraded through the empire, stopping at festivals, honored guests on their way for a date with death that was considered, incredibly, an honor. The would die atop the Llullaillaco Volcano, on the border of what is now Chile and Argentina.
The climate helped make the Maiden the most fawned over mummy on the planet at the time of her discovery. The condition of her corpse literally left archaeologists in awe. "In terms of mummies that are known around the world, in my opinion, she has to be the best preserved of any of the mummies that I'm aware of," said forensic and archaeological expert Andrew Wilson, who teaches at the University of Bradford in Yorkshire. "She looks almost as if she's just fallen asleep”
Archeologists are often romanticized and with good reason. Often their work takes them to remote, exotic, far-flung places, where time and nature have obscured the past. Archeologists are also detectives; they must piece together lost worlds by hunting for evidence that may seem impossible to track down. No wonder Indiana Jones, the character played by Harrison Ford in four blockbuster adventure films, is such a compelling hero. But get ready for a shock—the man who led the expedition to discover the Children is no slouch when it comes to drama, danger and derring-do.
Although he was born in the flat, mid-western state of Illinois, Dr, Johan Reinhard has devoted much of his life to studying mountain cultures. An Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society for over a decade, he has made more than 200 ascents to altitudes of 5,200 m (17,060 ft) and above in the Andes. He also directed underwater archaeological research projects in Lake Titicaca, at 12,506 ft and two crater lakes at elevations above 19,000. Before focusing on the Andes, Reinhard spent more than ten years in the Himalayas, where, among other things, was the first to contact and study two of the world's last hunting and gathering tribes, the Raute and the Kusunda. The mountain explorer has discovered a number of Incan mummies, including the 1995 uncovering of the famous Peruvian "Ice Maiden" known as Juanita. When it comes to adventure, he’s the real deal.
Dr. Reinhard had visited Llullaillaco before. In 1999, he assembled a team to climb to record heights for an archeological dig. The investigators spent a month getting acclimatized to the thin air by exploring a lower peak. After setting up a series of campsites, they made their way to the mountain’s summit of Llullaillaco. The search for any evidence of Incan activity was discouraging. In fact, after about a week Reinhard started to lose hope. "I was about to give up, " he recalled. But then they found a trail of dirt that looked like it might have been man-made. The started digging and found a small carving—a tiny llama made from a seashell! From that one discovery, the Maiden and her attendants were uncovered. When the mummies were pulled out of their earthen crypts, and some of their clothes removed, Reinhard was shocked by what he saw. It was as if these children had died only a few weeks earlier. "The arms looked perfect, even down to visible hairs," he said.
After the initial discovery was made, forensic archeologists spent eight years testing and analyzing the three mummified children with a seemingly endless stream of photographs, X-rays, scans, biopsies, blood work and DNA and tissue analysis. All of these procedures were conducted in giant freezer-like settings, to prevent the bodies from thawing and decomposing. It was emotional work for all involved. Unlike most examinations of mummified remains, the scientists conducting the investigation were deeply moved by the pristine condition of the bodies.
“I suppose that's what makes this all the more chilling,” said forensic archeology expert Andrew Wilson “This isn't a desiccated mummy or a set of bones. This is a person; this is a child. And this data that we've generated in our studies is really pointing to some poignant messages about her final months and years.”
The three sacrifices on Llullaillaco Volcano were not the first bodies of the lethal Inca ritual ever discovered in the Andes. At least 115 sites have been found at 30 peaks of the enormous mountain range where Inca culture flourished from 1438 to 1532. All these sites have been located at 15,000 feet above sea-level, or higher. The Inca chose these high altitudes because they wanted their offerings to be closer to the sun god they worshiped.
The first frozen sacrifice victim was found in 1954 on El Pomo, a mountain near Santiago, Chile. He was a boy, estimated to be about eight-years-old at the time of his death five centuries earlier. Like the Maiden, he was in pristine condition when found, with his hair in 200 braids and a host of small idols by his side. Unfortunately, refrigeration in Chile during the 1950s was not great and the men who found the body were not archeologists. These two facts impacted the preservation of the mummy and lead to an astounding tale.
The arrieros, or mule drivers who found the boy carried him to a cave about 12000 feet. While they made their descent, something very strange happened. According to the arrieros, blood began leaking from the boy’s ears. This has given rise to an incredible theory—that somehow during the descent, the boy thawed and was still, somehow alive for a brief moment.
While time travel remains an impossibility, the forensic studies, as well as archeological findings from decades of studying Inca rituals, revealed the shocking reality faced by the Maiden as she prepared to be sacrificed. By analyzing the proteins found in her hair and conducting other tests, scientists were able to determine many facts about the Maiden and what she was subjected to before the Incas ended her life to honor the sun god, Inti.
They determined that the Children were killed in a religious ritual called capacocha. In Inca society, it was considered an honor to be chosen. In fact, only attractive children were picked for capacocha, and if families were heartbroken over losing their child, they kept such feelings to themselves. The Inca believed death was not final for those sacrificed. In fact, it was the final step on the way to eternity. It was a common belief that the children wouldn’t actually die. Instead, they would join their ancestors, becoming, in effect, angels who hovered over the villages in mountain valleys, acting as protectors of the empire.
Since human hair grows at a consistent rate of about one centimeter per month, the beautiful, long, elaborately-braided tresses of the Maiden contained a host of clues about her diet. Each centimeter of a strand of hair could be analyzed for proteins that revealed what, exactly, her diet was like. The results indicate that during the last year of their life, the children were actively fattened up. While they had a steady diet of low-end foods, mostly vegetables and tubers, like potatoes, the diet, particularly for the Maiden, changed as the day of sacrifice approached—with more coveted foods like meat and corn appearing on the menu as she appeared at festivals. But there were other items given to the kids that were more shocking.
Experts believe the Maiden was the far more valued of the murdered threesome. She is the only one with elaborately done hair, while the Llullaillaco Boy had bugs in his untended locks. Furthermore, she was treated to more elite foods than the Boy or Lightning Girl. Because of this evidence, it’s theorized that the two younger victims may have served as servants or attendants to the Maiden.
The analysis also made clear that the priests who watched over the Maiden, the Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl had them plied with alcohol and drugs! As they attended festivals, the Children were given chicha, a corn-based beer, to drink. Not only that but coca leaves—a stimulant from which cocaine is made—were also a steady part of their diet.
Although illegal—in modern society, there are a number of reasons the Inca may have given these substances to the Children. Some experts theorize that the drugs made them easier to manage. It’s not hard to embrace this theory when you consider the young age of Lightning Girl and The Llullaillaco Boy—who are thought to have been around five-years-old when they died. Although anthropologists tell us that being sacrificed was perceived as an honor in Inca society, it’s easy to see how the “victims” of this “honor” might not feel that way. When Lightning Girl and The Boy were likely torn from their parents and engulfed in a world of sacrificial rituals at an age when most kids today are still in preschool. Doping them seems like it might have made them more compliant.
While they may have been drugged on their journey, scientists say it’s pretty clear what happened during the day of their sacrifice. They were plied with beer and given cocoa to chew. The positions they were found in—sitting comfortably—indicate they had fallen asleep. There was certainly no sign of struggle for the Maiden or Lightning Girl. Then earth was poured over the Children. They appear to have been buried alive.
Archeologists also found blood stains on Llullaillaco Boy’s clothes. And he was bound by a red cloth, suggesting to some that he might have been suffocated. This evidence clouds the picture of the circumstances of his death. Was he a reluctant victim? It seems to be a definite possibility.
But there are other theories about the diet and the drugs. If the Children were logging in hundreds of miles of travel, chewing coca leaves might have been a way to ease their journey. Coca leaves, as noted are mild stimulants. But chewing them doesn’t just make a person “high.” The leaves also serve to suppress hunger and thirst and act as a painkiller. Given the arduous journey—which required climbing up one of the world’s highest mountain ranges—dosing the kids might have been a way to help them cope with the journey.
The dietary findings show the Maiden was treated as a much more important and coddled figure than Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl, but who were they before? So far the archeologists studying the trio remain unsure. While some conjecture that they were royalty, others believe they may have been snatched from the lower levels of Inca society. Andrew Wilson, who led some of the studies, is convinced that the Maiden rose in stature when she was selected. "She became somebody other than who she was before," said Wilson, reiterating the popular view on sacrifice victims. "Her sacrifice was seen as an honor.”
Other archeologists think The Maiden was an aclla or "virgin of the Sun”—a special designation. As such, she might have been educated in what was called an Acllawasi. This translates into “The House of the Chosen Ones,” which, according to scholars were sort of designated work camps where women, selected for their manual skills, culinary skills or their physical beauty, worked for the state.
There is evidence that Lightning Girl and Llullaillaco Boy were members of royalty. Both children had elongated skulls, an effect created by tightly wrapping cloth around the skull while children are in their infancy. This practice, which has been found in pre-Inca societies, was a mark of distinction for Inca royalty. But, so far no other evidence suggests they had been members of the Inca elite before they were sacrificed.
In 2007, the Maiden made the public debut—in a museum created especially for the trio! The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, located in the Argentinian city of Salta. Despite the fanfare that greeted the discovery of the Children back in 1999, the museum’s opening was a low-key affair. The man responsible for the museum, designer and director Gabriel E. Miremont, acknowledged the emotional weight of the exhibit. “These are dead people, Indian people,” he said before the opening. “It’s not a situation for a party.”
Dr. Miremont spent a great deal of time considering how to present the Maiden. He was concerned about being respectful to her and to the experience of seeing her, which might strike some visitors as creepy or macabre. That’s why the room where the Maiden is displayed has extremely dim lighting and the climate-controlled case where she sits is dark. Visitors who want to study this 500-year-old sacrificial lamb must hit a button to illuminate the case. “This was important for us,” Dr. Miremont said. “If you don’t want to see a dead body, don’t press the button. It’s your decision. You can still see the other parts of the exhibit.”
The museum exhibit devoted to the Children is breathtaking to many visitors. The Maiden, when illuminated, sits cross-legged, just as she was found— and just, presumably, as she died. She wears a brown dress and striped sandals. She still bears red pigment painted onto her cheeks and there are bits of coca leaf on her upper lip. Her amazing braids are still tight and intact. The three children are not displayed all together. Although the museum has built a computerized climate control system that replicates mountaintop conditions inside the triple glazed case and ensures low oxygen, humidity and a temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit, only one mummy is on display at any one time—presumably to protect them from exposure to light.
All the mummies are fascinating and disturbing. But the Maiden is utterly transfixing, possibly because of her age, her quiet, calm pose or the brutality of what happened to her. It is impossible to see her and not wonder what she thought of her ordeal—losing her family, being drugged, and making the long bone-chilling journey up the mountain to her death. However she felt, it’s comforting to think she looks at peace now.