Interview: "Inca Mummy Man" Johan Reinhard

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What has been your most memorable discovery?

Because of [its] surprising nature … it has to be the discovery of the Ice Maiden [learn more]. But the discovery of the three mummies on Llullaillaco, Argentina, at 22,000 feet [6,700 meters]—the world's highest archaeological site—was the highlight of my life, or certainly my work in the Andes. These mummies were far better preserved, particularly two of them, than the Ice Maiden.

But there are two aspects to my work in the Andes: One includes the discoveries of the mummies and artifacts, which are important, and the other includes more theoretical discoveries. There were many questions that needed answering, such as why the Incas were building sites at these altitudes and locations. And what was their significance?

I was trying to come up with a better understanding of why the Inca were doing what they were doing at great altitudes.

Have there been any new developments in your work?

The most recent is the DNA and isotope analysis [of the mummies] to find out how the [individuals'] diets changed. Although it's been slow going, we've been able to tell whether the children on Llullaillaco were related or not, as well as the diet of these mummies.

Once you've got the DNA and the DNA's published and available to other scholars, then there's no end to the kind of work that can be done. For example, we're starting to get a worldwide database of DNA of people living today [along with] the DNA of the other [Inca] mummies and skeletons that have been found. So eventually you'll be able to locate the closest living relatives as this database increases.

Although it's not feasible now, we eventually hope to analyze [Inca mummy] blood so we can get a better understanding of things like infectious diseases, as well as other genetic conditions. Unfortunately, we [currently] have to take out too much blood for these types of studies.

Are there challenges unique to high-altitude archaeology?

What first comes to mind are the physical difficulties of working at high altitude. But perhaps even more difficult are the psychological aspects of just putting up with the conditions. … The truth is, once you're acclimatized and physically fit, you can deal with the conditions. But it's always hard psychologically over time, particularly if you're not finding anything. …

There are [also] challenges with conservation and taking care of the objects you find. So if you're dealing with mummies, you're dealing with a very long-term issue. It's like caring for a baby. You have an obligation to take care of it.

Do museums display your discoveries?

There are three museums that display what's been found from our expeditions that I've been director or co-director on. There's a really nice museum in Salta [Argentina] with the finds from Llullaillaco and a new one in Arequipa, Peru. There's also a museum that has all of our finds from Lake Titicaca. I feel very proud of them.

Some people complain that your excavations disturb ancient Inca sites. How do you respond to such criticism?

My response is that you don't save a culture by having its sacred sites looted, ruined, and lost forever. That's disrespectful. What the critics don't realize is that there is a 100 percent [certainty] these sites will be looted. Looting, of course, is not just in the mountains. There are thousands of [Inca] tombs [elsewhere] that have been looted.

Also, the critics don't seem to know the actual situations on the ground. They don't realize there are local people involved or that the countries are in favor of it. In the case of the Llullaillaco mummies, for example, the [2004 International Quechua] Congress of Argentina passed a resolution in favor of our work. In other words, it's usually the critics who don't understand the process, whether it's the people or nations who are involved on the expeditions or the aftermath. The finds are always made available to the public, and they've helped these communities either directly or indirectly.

I should also mention that if I ever had a country or community involved [that] considered a site sacred and did not want it disturbed, then under no circumstances would I be interested in disturbing the sites. So I have no regrets about my involvement. In fact, I'm quite proud of my involvement with rescuing cultural patrimony.

What's next for you?

There are still some sites on mountains that I'd like to excavate, because I'm concerned that they're going to be looted.

But in truth there are other parts of the world that I want to explore … things that I kind of left hanging after I found the Ice Maiden in 1995. There are important mountains in Tibetan Buddhism in the Himalayas. There is also some work in Mexico with some sacred mountains, including diving in some high-altitude lakes. There are parts of the world that I like to visit that I haven't been to, particularly New Guinea, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. I [also] want to finish [work in the Alps] and work on the Ice Maiden.

I'd like to do a few more popular books, as well, on the Andes and the Himalayas. I've spent years in the Himalayas [doing research] on culture change that I've never really written [about]. So there is an awful lot of work just playing catch-up with where I've been in the past.

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