Photograph courtesy Johan Reinhard
Published July 29, 2013
Three Inca mummies found near the lofty summit of Volcán Llullaillaco in Argentina were so well preserved that they put a human face on the ancient ritual of capacocha—which ended with their sacrifice.
Now the bodies of 13-year-old Llullaillaco Maiden and her younger companions Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl have revealed that mind-altering substances played a part in their deaths and during the year-long series of ceremonial processes that prepared them for their final hours.
Under biochemical analysis, the Maiden's hair yielded a record of what she ate and drank during the last two years of her life. This evidence seems to support historical accounts of a few selected children taking part in a year of sacred ceremonies—marked in their hair by changes in food, coca, and alcohol consumption—that would ultimately lead to their sacrifice. (Related: "Lofty Ambitions of the Inca.")
In Inca religious ideology, the authors note, coca and alcohol could induce altered states associated with the sacred. But the substances likely played a more pragmatic role as well, disorienting and sedating the young victims on the high mountainside to make them more accepting of their own grim fates.
The Maiden and her young counterparts, found in 1999, exist in a remarkable state of natural preservation due to frigid conditions just below the mountain's 22,110-foot (6,739-meter) summit.
"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, of the University of Bradford (U.K.). "She looks almost as if she's just fallen asleep."
It is this incredible level of preservation that made possible the kinds of technical analysis that, paired with the pristine condition of the artifacts and textiles arrayed in the tomb-like structure, allowed experts to re-create the events that took place in this thin air some 500 years ago.
"I suppose that's what makes this all the more chilling," Wilson added. "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."
Before the Final Day
Because hair grows about a centimeter a month and remains unchanged thereafter, the Maiden's long, braided locks contain a time line of markers that record her diet, including consumption of substances like coca and alcohol in the form of chicha, a fermented brew made from maize.
The markers show she appears to have been selected for sacrifice a year before her actual death, Wilson explained. During this period her life changed dramatically, as did her surging consumption of both coca and alcohol, which were then controlled substances not available for everyday use. "We suspect the Maiden was one of the acllas, or chosen women, selected around the time of puberty to live away from her familiar society under the guidance of priestesses," he said, noting that this practice is described in the accounts of Spaniards who chronicled information on such rites given to them by the Inca.
A previous DNA and chemical study, also led by Wilson, examined changes in the Maiden's diet and found marked improvements during the year before her death, including the consumption of elite foods like maize and animal protein, perhaps llama meat. Now it's clear that the Maiden's consumption of coca also rose heavily throughout the year before her death, spiking dramatically 12 months before her death and again 6 months before her death. (Related: "Thousands of Inca Mummies Raised From Their Graves.")
"These data fit with the suggestion that she was perhaps leading an ordinary or even peasant lifestyle up to that point, but a year before her death she's selected, effectively removed from that existence and the lifestyle that was familiar to her, and projected into a different existence," Wilson said. "And now we see a massive change in terms of the use of coca."
The Maiden consistently used coca at a high level during the last year of her life, but her alcohol consumption surged tellingly only in her last weeks.
"We're probably talking about the last six to eight weeks, which show that very altered existence, that she's either compliant in taking this or is being made to ingest such a large quantity of alcohol. Certainly in her final weeks she's again entering a different state, probably one in which these chemicals, the coca and the chicha alcohol, might be used in almost a controlling way in the final buildup to the culmination of this capacocha rite and her sacrifice."
On the day of the Maiden's death the drugs may have made her more docile, putting her in a stupor or perhaps even rendering her unconscious. That theory seems to be supported by her relaxed, seated position inside the tomb-like structure, and the fact that the artifacts around her were undisturbed as was the feathered headdress she wore as she drifted off to death. Chewed coca leaves were found in the mummy's mouth upon her discovery in 1999.
The younger children show lower levels of coca and alcohol use, perhaps due to their lesser status in the ritual itself, or to their differences in age and size. "Perhaps as an older child there was a greater need to bring the Maiden to that point of sedation," Wilson said.
And while other capacocha sites show evidence of violence, like cranial trauma, these children were left to slip off peacefully. "Either they got it right, in terms of perfecting the mechanisms of performing this type of sacrifice, or these children went much more quietly," Wilson explained.
Kelly Knudson, an archaeological chemist at Arizona State University, wasn't involved with the research but said the exciting study shows how archaeological science can help us understand both the intimate details of human lives and larger ancient societies.
"Seeing increases in both the consumption of alcohol and coca is very interesting, both in terms of the capacocha sacrifices and their lives before they died, and also in terms of what it can tell us about Inca coercion and control," Knudson said.
The system of control that brought these children to a remote mountaintop at extreme altitude shows all the hallmarks of state support at the highest level, the study's authors suggest, and may have occurred as part of a military and political expansion of the Cuzco-based empire that took place just prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
"The sort of logistical support needed even today to work at this altitude is extensive," Wilson explained. "And here we're talking about evidence that points to the highest possible, imperial-level support. There are artifacts and clothes that are elite and refined products coming from effectively the four corners of the Inca Empire."
Such artifacts include figures made of spondylus shells, brought from the coast, and feathered headdresses from the Amazon Basin. Well-crafted statues of gold and silver, adorned with finely woven miniature clothing, were also available only to the highest levels of society. "I think the whole assemblage represents their status and also the symbolism that this was undertaken under the highest possible sanction," he added. Wilson and his co-authors suggest that such sacrifices may have been a highly stratified means to help exert social control over large areas of conquered territories.
(Last year a study published in PloS ONE showed that the Maiden was suffering from a lung infection at the time of the sacrifice.)
Evidence Supports Early Spanish Chronicles
Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, discovered the mummies in 1999 with colleague Constanza Ceruti, of the Catholic University of Salta (Argentina).
Reinhard, a co-author of the new study, said he's particularly interested in how the findings compare to what's been written in the historical chronicles of such ceremonies, penned by early Spanish explorers to the New World. "They describe how these ceremonies took place, but they weren't firsthand accounts; no Spanish ever saw one of these personally," Reinhard said. "They depended on what the Inca had told them about what happened."
(In the mid-16th century, for example, Juan de Betanzos wrote of widespread child sacrifices, up to a thousand individuals, on the testimony of his wife—who had previously been married to none other than the Inca Emperor Atahualpa.)
Now the data appear to match the kinds of events described in the chronicles, Reinhard said. "All of a sudden you have this picture where you can almost see what they are going through. Increased attention is paid to them in terms of better food and coca, which was used in ceremonies and wasn't in very common use. This kind of increased attention paid to these children is exactly what you read in the chronicles."
For example, Reinhard said, it's not surprising to see an increase in coca consumption during the year before the death of a chosen child like the Maiden because of the tales told in the chronicles.
"They talk about pilgrimages going to Cuzco and a series of ceremonies during which these children would be sent from one place to another on long pilgrimages. I think it's also interesting that there is a six-month period associated with these largest spikes in coca use," he added. "It could be six months related to something else, but a hypothesis to throw out there is that this corroborates historical accounts that some of these Virgins of the Sun were taken to solstice ceremonies during the year before they were taken off to their deaths."
Today the mummies reside in the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM) in Salta, Argentina. The extent to which their physical remains may support historical and archaeological records is exciting, Wilson added, but it is also chilling that the children remain so recognizably human even in death.
"For me it's almost like the children are able to reach out to us to tell us their own stories," he said. "Hair, especially, is such a personal thing, and here it's able to provide some compelling evidence and tell us a very personal story even after five centuries."
The study was published July 29 in the PNAS Early Edition journal.
Reading all these comments below....we need to step back- the exhibit in Salta is very thorough, you need to see, read listen and experience it. Its fantastic and it was the culture of the people. It was a ritualistic burial but the fact remains that they were so well preserved and that tests could be made through the DNA of the existing hair-these finds are incredible.
Its too bad that Constanza Ceruti who worked with Johan Reinhard has not contributed more of her knowledge to the article. I was in Salta at the museum in March of this year and it is a fantastic exhibit. The three children are rotated on display every three months. They are kept in atmospheric controlled cylinders at -60 C ( approx.) to mimic the temperature they have been in for the last 500 years.
The consumption of coca is not unusual. many people whether the native aborigines ( Incas) and those of us who may visit for short periods of time or longer can be found to use coca. It is a stimulant used very often to combat altitude sickness. When you are at a high altitude whether in Tilcara or higher in the Andes you are definitely in a thinner oxygen environment. The first thing that happens to you is that your heart starts to race, to help you out you chew coca - yes it is a stimulant and addictive but it is commonly used in the Andes. The aborigines today use it daily - in their tea or chew it. Also the article mentioned llamas. Llamas are fairly scarce at such altitudes, but the vicuna is much more common. They live very high in the Andes - these children who were 'sacrificed' to the gods were special, and it was considered a very high honor to be one of the chosen ones. Even today they have the Easter parades that last for a month in the Andes. Where a chosen virgin gets to carry the virgin Mary statue to its destination. These traditions and rituals have been happening for hundreds of years. There were also sacrifices made in the bible. These are all traditions some much older than others.
The exhibit on display at the museum in Salta is phenomenal - a must see. To experience the culture of the area is also a must - a completely different world and very beautiful and very rich- steeped in tradition.
My interest in this goes back many years. My back ground is cultural anthropology and having family who is from the Salta (and I am a Swedish born American). We need to be more understand and more accepting of what traditions are in other cultures and what we may think is brutal is perfectly acceptable by another culture. We need to understand that we should not be so quick to judge. Myself included.
I agree as well with the gentleman who wrote that children are more so affected by the coca high than adults -this is very true. You still get young people using coca leaves today it is part of the culture and perfectly acceptable. And I understand that the three children were specially chosen and on a special diet - in preparation for their non earthly life.
Informative and very interesting piece! I have a quick question tho, in this artlcle, it said that La Doncella was 13 years old but in an older NatGeo news item (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/10/071003-inca-sacrifice.html), it stated she was 15. Are there new updates leading to as to why the age changed? Thanks in advance!
Religious sacrifices where very prevalent in olden time which is considered a taboo now ,One's disappointment cant fix any thing its good to know how these actions of brutality took place ,That's the beauty in Historical Journalism something new about the old always pops up so you can never blame the Journalist . Natgeo did a very good job in informing us about it and how primitive the thought process of people was towards god and how they believed sacrifices bought good to there life's
You sun shiny people do realize this probably isn't the entirety of their found information... its not a report on every detail of the discovery... Its been (for lack of a better word) dumbed down for the general public. If you're having issues with this article maybe you should pick up the July article of the PNAS Early Edition.
This article is fine, not sure why everyone is so upset here... if you eat coca leaves you get a mild stimulant, if you eat a bunch it gets a bit more intense. If you are a CHILD it is yet even more intense. You people are focusing on the drug use more then the article is, I think its something that bothers you personally for some reason when really its needed as a fact to support the article; and that is how science works. I read this and got a totally different outcome then those who are upset.. The article claimed they were sacrificed in the first sentence through ritual of capacocha.. this ritual was very common and there are widespread reports of it from various incan sites so its really not that important to get into that since the article is not about that in particular (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_sacrifice_in_pre-Columbian_cultures -- this is not new news at all) . I am not sure why you armchair hobbiests think you know more then certain experts in the field.. I just finished the archeology program at one of the top schools for field work in Arizona about a year ago and work on and off in the field and everything I read seems perfetly fine and correct.
Hanno gets his story about the children being sick is beyond me,
there is SO much guess work in that story that it could only come
from a hobbiest who thinks he knows what actully happened when years
of studies and facts show him wrong and the truth is that child
sacrifices were happining. Do the resarch yourself people, you
will find the same results.
ehh, people like to complain, its the nature of people and maybe even why language was invented so no big surprise that people are complaining about this article..
Why some people are disapppointed with NatGeo is beyond my comprehension. Human sacrifice was a common practice in all pre-Columbian America, this is an undisputed and well documented fact. The sacrifice of children by the Incas, called "capacocha", was usually held at the mountains, an offer to the "Apu", the mountain god. If you travel around some Andean countries, many such burials can be found, even one near the ski resort of Valle Nevado, Chile.
I agree, very disappointing article from NatGeo. FYI Coca leaves are routinely consumed for medicinal purposes by Andean natives. Even today coca tea is served at tourist hotels in Cusco, Peru to help with altitude sickness, it is a medicinal herb and in its natural form does not have the same effects as cocaine which is a processed product. What I see here is the kids were sick and to avoid spreading their infections they were isolated and fed well as part of their medicinal treatment for the year they were ailing. Their mouths full of coca leaves supports the use of medicinal coca which also helps breathing at high altitudes and not for sedation purposes. I see no sacrifice at all in this account. I do see a worrisome twisting of facts on coca leaves and chicha to promote "sacrifice" as a theory of ritual to the Incas. These kids were not able to breathe well at high altitudes much like asthma kids are today, they suffered but I see no sacrificial account.
We will be visiting Inca cities later this year and will check on this information to see if it's true or not. The Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed people and the Aztecs were also known to sacrifice children to Tlaloc, their rain god. On the other hand, today's Washington Post had an article about a court debate over whether to lower the bail on a monster who set fire to his girlfriends 7 year old boy using nail polish to increase the flames. The Taliban do stuff like this to children every day. I'd say the human race hasn't advanced at all over the centuries.
Since she was suffering from a serious lung infection, perhaps she was a high status individual who simply died, was tied in a flexed position (very common when a corpse had to be transported) and deposited at high altitude post-mortem like the approximately 1,000 other Andes/Atacama burials known so far. The alcohol and coca intake (should this technique for determining such a thing on a practically monthly level stand up. . . ) could be related to efforts to cure or ameliorate the effects of an illness. There is zero evidence that any of these high altitude mummies were ritual sacrifices. The one documentary source is not considered reliable for all the obvious reasons, and, even if it were, does not connect the (poorly excavated, over-restored) find with the descriptions within. Many, many high altitude mummies are known into recent historic periods in a number of Latin American countries. Where it has been possible to determine the cause of death, things that killed people all the time, like sepsis and tb, come up a lot. Very disappointed in NatGeo.
I find it odd that the study would focus so much on coca consumption. It's almost another anti-coca ad in the "Drug War" (TM). The use of coca in its natural form with a low ingestion of the alkaloid was then, and is still used now for the working classes/farmers; it is no more harmful than coffee. I suspect that the international coffee industry in South America sees coca as a competitor, and is involved in the lobbying to keep it illegal. As a stimulant in its modern concentrated & manufactured form I don't see how this supposed coca/alcohol combo was up to the task of disorientation of these victims. I do see that if they were being paraded around the empire prior to "sacrifice" that coca would aid in endurance. The fact that there is no archeologist/pharmacologist involved with this study is troubling to me. In all the flora of this extensive region I would speculate that other botany factors would also be involved for means of "control" if that were necessary. As a modern Catholic and a Cherokee Native American in Oklahoma I know that the ancient empires of the South did indeed practice human sacrifice; I DON'T adhere to the school of thought that the conquistadors saved the Southern Nations from their own self-inflicted brutalities as something noble, because I'm aware of equal and WORSE crimes against humanity were committed by the Spanish and Portuguese. God save us from ourselves! Amen.
"In Inca religious ideology, the authors note, coca and alcohol could induce altered states associated with the sacred. But the substances likely played a more pragmatic role as well, disorienting and sedating the young victims on the high mountainside to make them more accepting of their own grim fates."
@Judith Watters: Hypothermia,exposure. It was not mentioned, except for this: "And while other capacocha sites show evidence of violence, like cranial trauma, these children were left to slip off peacefully."
@Syeda InayathReligious sacrifices happen today too in islam but upon animals thats called eid or sacrificial day dont think its of past thing. And for your kind info i am a muslim i know about it.
@Gracie Crisler Exactly! It's just a discussion of a small portion of data they collected. This find is not exactly new!
"Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, discovered the mummies in 1999 with colleague Constanza Ceruti, of the Catholic University of Salta (Argentina)."
They are still collecting, analyzing, publishing and discussing data from the original find. This is not the entire picture. Just a small discussion on the finding of coca and alcohol and speculation of its use/purpose.
@George Ross Whops! I meant to target Rainbow trail NOT Hanno! Sorry man, read the wrong names there... though I am still confused why Rainbow Trout thinks these kids were being quarantined due to illness while NONE OF THIS has ever been REPORTED EVER... through translation of incan text from the descendents of incans themselves, this is documented no where.. this is what happens when current humans try to figure out what happened in the past using the present for example.. you really have to know your field and put yourself in their shoes and you STILL will never know what is really going on, thats why articles like this exist!
@Maureen Basedow Actually, it's been documented for 5 centuries that ritual sacrifice including that of children was very common in quite a few Native American empires in what's now Latin America. Americans, of course, routinely murder their children en masse in far more gruesome ways, just to be fair about it.
@Johan Hollander Yeah... The concept of euthanasia is not really relevant when the subject is religious murder of three children, is it?
@Joe Ratley You know, I got a completely different reaction reading the same article you did. I didn't read it it as anti-coca at all. Compared to the Aztec Sacrifices which were brutal in comparison, the Inca Sacrifices were gentler (if sacrificing could be used that way) and far less common.
They cared enough for the chosen (or victim) enough to take the time to drug them before the act and I'm sure the author and researches feel the same way.
There was evidence that Juanita was drugged as well.
@Waqar Qureshi My name is Syeda Inas Inayth I am a Muslim too and I was referring to "HUMAN SACRIFICES " and not animals ,I am very well aware of Bakra eid ,(One of Abraham's main trials was to face the command of Allah to kill his only son. Upon hearing this command, he prepared to submit to Allah's will. When he was all prepared to do it, Allah revealed to him that his "sacrifice" had already been fulfilled. He had shown that his love for his Lord superseded all others, that he would lay down his own life or the lives of those dear to him in order to submit to God.) So human sacrifices never took place in Islam
@Chris Meyering I agree. The fact that coca was mentioned to me doesn't make it pro or anti coca, it was an interesting find in the case that makes it easier to understand the child's ease of passing.
Well, keep in mind that the Aztecs generally weren't killing their own - they usually kidnapped their victims from surrounding tribes.
@George Ross Did not mean that they happen in the hundreds daily, not sure why I could not edit it out but sorry!
@Syeda Inayath @Waqar Qureshi Peoples thoughts TODAY are still VERY primitive when it comes to thinking about gods. I mean from any atheists standpoint (not that I am) its all primitive and very un educated in a sense to believe in current gods just as it was in the past. Sure human sacrifices are not happening today but RADICAL branches of Islam perform suicide bombings DAILY which is sort of a self sacrifice to the gods and there are reports of human sacrifice of people in worn torn Sub-Saharan Africa better known as "Money Rituals" while a bit different are still "sacrifices".
... furthermore certain sects of radical Islam convince children to strap bombs to their chests by convincing them they will not die but doing this for god. This is extremely primitive thinking that happens it the hundreds daily and dictates peoples lives and deaths... so YES primitive and brutal thinking in religion sitll exists today, its not like it was ONLY linked to these "brutal primitive" people!! We have not changed much with all of our knowledge of man and technology, not as much as we should be. We are very similar to these people , do not forget this.
A common mistake is to think these people are "dumb" due to their "primitiveness" but many people today are just as dumb.
Lets please not get into a religious argument as that is not the point of this post so do not take it the wrong way.
@Waqar Qureshi "Our" religion doesn't permit hurting any human being drugging them and sacrificing them is another thing
@Patty Brown Not entirely, the children sacrificed were their own.
Feed the World
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
Latest Photo Galleries
On U.S. Labor Day, we honor the people who labor daily to make their lives—and ours—better.
Mars sports a weird crater, a young star gleams in its own reflection, and a new island continues a fiery growth spurt.