Interview: "Inca Mummy Man" Johan Reinhard

Yancey Hall
for National Geographic News
June 21, 2005

In 1995 on the 20,500-foot (6,248-meter) frozen summit of Mount Ampato in Peru, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard made the discovery of a lifetime: a nearly perfectly preserved, frozen Inca mummy.

Viewed by millions and heralded by Time magazine as one of the most important scientific discoveries of the year, the find launched Reinhard on a quest to preserve many sacred Inca sites in the Andes of South America.

Now after decades of research and exploration at altitudes where most living things simply can't survive, Reinhard gives his account of this and other discoveries in a personal memoir, The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes, published by National Geographic Books. National Geographic News recently spoke with Reinhard about his past finds and latest projects.

What is the focus of the book? What did you want readers to know?

The focus of my work and of this book has obviously been the discoveries of the mummies. Of course these are extremely important and arguably the most valuable [of my discoveries]. But I wanted to make it clear that the discoveries were part of a much larger context.

They were part of rituals made on mountaintops, which themselves were part of a much broader look at Andean beliefs. If you understand the way the Inca viewed the landscape, then you're well on your way to understanding Andean culture and many of the major sites of Andean archaeology.

Why are we so captivated by mummies?

What's captivating is that they're human. You can have their artifacts and things like that. But nothing is as tangible as the human being itself. It's like an eye into the past that would otherwise be totally impossible to access, especially in the case of the Inca mummies.

But you have to keep in mind it's still rare to find a naturally preserved, frozen mummy. Even at [high] altitude, there are periods when they could unfreeze and [be] destroyed by lightning strikes and natural causes. Also, compared to the Egyptian mummies, we can get much more information, [like about] diet and illnesses, from the Inca mummies, since their internal organs are preserved.

Why did the Inca make these mountaintop sacrifices?

The key thing is that they did not do them very often. [The Inca] did them in extreme cases. The sacrifices were children, because they were considered to be the most pure. … [They] weren't being sacrificed to feed the gods. They were being sacrificed to enter into the realm of the gods. It was considered a great honor.

These children didn't die in the sense that we think: They went to live in a paradise with the gods. And for [the children], they could still be in contact with the community through shamans. It was a transition into a better life, one that these children were greatly honored [to have].

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