Inca Sacrifice Victims "Fattened Up" Before Death

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"We can equate a change in diet of this magnitude with a change in her status, one that occurred as part of her final demise."

But the term "fattening up" is used as an illustration, not necessarily a direct reference to weight gain, he said.

"The tissue on the Maiden's forearm is plump, for example," he said. "This is an illustration that these individuals were in good health and condition."

What's more, the chemical evidence shows another shift several months before death, indicating that the children were forced on a grueling pilgrimage.

The route likely went from Cusco, Peru—the Inca capital—to high-altitude mountain shrines, where the children were drugged and then killed or left to die, Wilson added.

The Maiden, for example, was fed fermented maize beer and chewed coca leaves before her death.

(Related: "Mystery Mountain of the Inca" in National Geographic magazine [February 2004].)

Last Months of Life

"This work gives a very interesting and intimate picture of the last months before the deaths of the individuals involved in the capacocha ceremonies," said Kelly J. Knudson, a bioarchaeologist at Arizona State University.

Sonia Guillén, a Peruvian archaeologist, said the study was interesting and helps confirm much of what is known about this type of sacrifice.

"One key question is how these children differed from others in terms of diet," she said.

Other capacocha victims have been found, and other studies have looked at isotopic signatures in order to measure seasonal variations in diet, study leader Wilson said.

But none "has linked to such a graphic piece of evidence that would suggest a diet shift of this magnitude that could be equated with change in status."

Study co-author Timothy Taylor, also from the University of Bradford, said in a written statement that "the treatment of such peasant children may have served to instill fear and exert social control over remote mountain areas newly incorporated into the empire."

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