The girl is slumped like a stoned teenager in a doorway, head drooping, hands folded in her lap: she has been dead for more than 500 years, and a team of international archaeologists and scientists, led by Dr Andy Wilson of Bradford University, has just pieced together the appalling last months of her life.
Like other children found on some of the highest peaks of the Andes, the mummy nicknamed the Llullaillaco Maiden had literally been fattened up for death, fed a much better diet in her last year including maize and meat, the luxury foods of aristocrats.
Her fine woven dress and cape are also far from the coarse peasant dress she probably wore before a horrific honour was bestowed on her: she was chosen to be abandoned on a mountain top, a living sacrifice to the gods.
She may indeed, the archaeologists hope, have been stupefied with drugs and alcohol. In her last weeks she was drugged with coca, and probably maize beer—perhaps to bring on merciful oblivion, possibly more pragmatically to combat altitude sickness so she could climb 6,739m to her own death, after walking hundreds of miles from the Inca capital, Cuzco.
The Maiden, aged about 15, whose mummy goes on display this week at a museum in Salta, Argentina, is regarded as one of the most perfect naturally mummified figures from anywhere in the world. She was found in 1999 in a stone shrine on the summit of the volcano, on the borders of Argentina and Chile.
Nearby were two other children, Lightning Girl, aged about 6, whose body was scorched by a direct lightning strike some time after her death, and Llullaillaco Boy, perhaps the most pathetic victim. If the girls were drugged beyond caring, the seven-year-old clearly was not: his clothes were covered with vomit and faeces, evidence, the scientists believe, of his terror. He probably actually died of crushing, so tightly bound that the cloth dislocated his ribs and pelvis.
The precise cause of the other deaths remains uncertain: the bitter cold which preserved their bodies is the most likely explanation. The scientists, many with children of their own, struggled to maintain objectivity. “The mummies were so extraordinarily preserved, it was impossible not to feel fully engaged with them as human beings,” Dr Wilson said. “It felt almost as if the individuals were recounting their stories themselves, that was what was so chilling about it.”
The team believes the food, the clothes, the jewellery, the expensive pottery left with them, were all intended to raise the status of the children, possibly to make them a more acceptable offering, but possibly more pragmatically so that the Inca rulers could use snatched peasant children, sparing their own. Their deaths were the climax of a complex ritual lasting at least a year, when they were almost certainly brought to Cuzco—the source of the pottery found with them—and then walked enormous distances to the mountains, which must have taken months.
Their hair was cut, and the cut hair carefully placed in small cloth bags with them—analysis of isotopes in hair samples provided the most telling evidence for their short lives—and the girls’ elaborately braided soon before death. As if he hadn’t endured enough torment, the little boy’s was full of nits.
Their deaths were terrifying, and Dr Wilson believes they were meant to be. “The logistics of getting the children there needed imperial organisation,” he said. “We believe there was some measure of the Incas demonstrating their power to the colonised: obey, or this is what will happen to you.”
Using hair from bodies of children found preserved in the Andes mountains, archaeological scientist Andrew Wilson has pieced together a chilling tale of children fattened and killed in ritual sacrifice 500 years ago.
UK-based Wilson and his colleagues elsewhere have used chemical signatures in scalp hair of the children to reconstruct events in their final months and show that they had been prepared for sacrifice a year before their deaths.
The researchers studied the frozen remains of a 15-year-old girl discovered on a mountain top in Peru in 1996.
In 1999, they found the remains of another 15-year old girl, a seven-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, all in a stone structure at the height of 6,700m in Llullaillaco, Argentina, the world’s highest archaeological site.
The 15-year-old, found in Llullaillaco, may have died anytime between 1430 and 1520.
The Peru girl had received a blow on her head, similar to what had been earlier observed in another Andes body.
The new study, published yesterday in the US’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has helped scientists determine how their diets changed and how they were moved high up the mountains just before their deaths.
“The really chilling thing is that they were earmarked for sacrifice and their diets improved a year before death,” said Wilson at the University of Bradford. “Whether they knew what was coming to them is not clear,” he told The Telegraph.
Historical accounts and earlier archaeological findings had suggested that child sacrifice was practised in the Andes during the rule of the Incas in Peru and Argentina from the 12th century to about the mid-16th century.
The analysis of chemicals in hair samples showed for much of the time, the children ate a poor diet, mainly vegetables like potatoes. But 12 months before the sacrifice, the diet improved dramatically, enriched with maize and meat.
“In effect, the countdown to their sacrifice had begun a considerable time prior to death,” said Wilson, a Welcomm Trust Bioarchaeology Fellow.
Diet changes get reflected in chemical residues in hair which typically grows 10mm each month. Hair chemistry can also change with altitude because of decreasing oxygen in the atmosphere. Chemical changes in the children’s hair samples also suggest that they began their journey up the mountains from Cuzco, the Inca capital.
While there was evidence of a blow on the head of the 15-year-old girl found in Peru, scientists said, the cause of the death of the other three children found in Argentina remains unclear.
“It looks to us as though the children were led up to the summit shrine . . . drugged and left to succumb to exposure,” said Timothy Taylor, a team member also at the University of Bradford.
An earlier study on the body of the boy from Llullaillaco had suggested that he had died of terror. There was vomit and diarrhoea on his clothes, indicative of a state of terror.
His vomit was stained red by a hallucinogenic drug called achiote, traces of which were also found in his stomach and faeces. “But examinations also showed signs of crush injuries on the body,” Wilson said.
Researchers believe the children of local communities were picked for sacrifice by the Incas to use fear to govern. “The treatment of such peasant children may have served to instil fear and facilitate control over remote mountain areas,” Taylor said.
Many questions about child sacrifice in the reign of the Incas remain unanswered. “We don’t know when it started or when it stopped,” Wilson said. “But it could have come to an abrupt end with the Spanish invasion.”
A combination of accumulated archaeological and literary evidence suggests that human sacrifice has been practised in history across diverse cultures in several parts of the world, including central America, Europe, Asia, and West Africa.
The 15-year old Llullallaico girl went on display for the first time at a museum in northwest Argentina last month.