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Last Updated: Wednesday, December 8, 1999
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Human Sacrifice in the 5th Century Before Now
Archaeologists find mummified Incan children on an Andean peak
At the peak of an Andean volcano, three children were found cold–and 500 years old. They certainly didn't look their age: The ice mummies unveiled in Argentina last week may be the best-preserved ancient human remains ever discovered. The bodies, two girls and one boy, ages between 8 and 15, were probably left at this towering height as sacrificial victims offered to Incan deities. One wore a white feather headdress and a yellow mantle with ornate geometric patterns.
Gasping for breath in the oxygen-poor atmosphere 22,057 feet above sea level, nine archaeologists, workers, and guides spent nearly two weeks battling adverse conditions, including ferocious blizzards and 70-mph winds. For three days the team members were trapped in their tents under about 3 feet of snow, with the temperature at times 20 degrees below zero. ''Even taking off my gloves to write notes was a major ordeal," expedition co-director Maria Constanza Ceruti recalled from Argentina. The altitude of the summit–only 6,971 feet lower than that of Mount Everest–can cause the brain to swell and the lungs to fill with fluid.
Johan Reinhard, primary organizer of the American-Argentine-Peruvian expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, had been scouting out this mountain peak since 1983 and had already brought 16 ice mummies down from other Andean summits. He knew the Incas were inclined to offer human sacrifices on the highest possible spots. ''You feel like you're on the top of the world there," he said, after bringing the mummies down last week.
After using picks and shovels to dig through 5 feet of rock and frozen earth, the crew had to lower a graduate student into the pit by his ankles to lift the mummies out of their sanctuary. The team wrapped the bodies in protective foam and ice and carried the 80-pound burdens down the mountain in backpacks. Ceruti said she knew the find was remarkable when she saw the children's fingernails and the fine hairs on their arms, still preserved after five centuries. But the discovery's full import wasn't clear until CT scans revealed all the internal organs in two of the bodies to be intact.
David Hunt, a biological anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, said the find would probably prove to be even more impressive than ''Juanita," the Incan ''Ice Maiden" Reinhard discovered in Peru four years ago.
Unlike most mummies found elsewhere, the children's bodies have been in near-perfect states since the time of their deaths: The permafrost of ice-packed rock and dirt kept the internal organs and bodily fluids frozen rather than freeze-dried. Normally, the fluids in a corpse quickly bring about decay. Embalmers of Pharaonic Egypt and other ancient cultures painstakingly removed fluids to ensure preservation in hot, dry climates.
''Accidental" mummies have survived when nature served as an embalmer instead. The Ice Maiden Juanita–whom President Bill Clinton once jokingly said he might be tempted to ask out on a date–and the famous 5,300-year-old ''Ice Man" discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991 were desiccated by exposure or repeated cycles of thawing and refreezing. The 1,000-year-old Bog People found at various sites in Northern Europe were turned to leather by the tannic acid of the peat into which they'd been cast. The newly discovered ice mummies, however, were saved from dehydration by the perpetual cold of their high-altitude burial site.
The fact that these mummies have not been desiccated makes them a particularly valuable source of information: Scientists can examine the corpses the same way that a coroner would perform an autopsy on a murder victim. Arthur Aufderheide, a University of Minnesota-Duluth expert on New World mummies who also worked as a pathologist, says the plasma of these bodies might reveal what diseases were present in the pre-Columbian Andes.
''This is the sort of thing folks like me dream about," says Aufderheide, whose research on 1,000-year-old mummies proved that tuberculosis was present in the New World 500 years before its widespread distribution by Europeans. Studying historical patterns of disease, Aufderheide says, can help predict future outbreaks, and the DNA of ancient microbes could assist doctors fighting their modern descendants.
Keys to kinships. DNA fingerprinting of the mummies might also help trace genetic links between the Incas and other societies. ''Blood serum can show relations between distant populations," says the Smithsonian's Hunt. Analysis of samples drawn from modern individuals is complicated by the social mobility and subsequent genetic intermingling of the past five centuries. The DNA of a pre-Columbian population would be more homogeneous. ''If we found a rare genetic marker shared with a group as far off as the Arctic Circle or Asia," Hunt says, ''that could tell us a lot about how and when South America was settled."
For cultural anthropologists, the discovery provides striking details about the ritual life of the Incas. For nearly a century prior to the Spanish conquest of 1532, the Incan empire encompassed much of what is now Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. That period remains shrouded in mystery: Unlike earlier Central American peoples such as the Maya, the Incas had no written language. Highly skilled as mathematicians and builders, they kept the records of a vast kingdom with a complex system of knots tied in strings of varying lengths and colors. Apart from archaeological artifacts, the only evidence modern scholars have about the culture of the Incas comes from accounts written during the time of the Spanish invasion. Those accounts often focused solely on recording ''idolatrous" practices as a prelude to obliterating them.
The Incas' most controversial custom was human sacrifice. They did not practice it nearly as often as did the Maya, Aztecs, and Toltecs (the Incas preferred to slaughter llamas or guinea pigs). But on occasions of special importance such as coronations or natural disasters, young children were offered up in a rite called capac cocha. The Incas also gave their gods the most valuable gifts they could–the burial site unearthed last week included statuettes made of gold, silver, and rare shells from the far-distant ocean– so the sacrifice of an unblemished, aristocratic child was seen as a particularly auspicious offering. ''This find could answer many questions about the capac cocha ritual," says Richard Burger, a specialist in Peruvian archaeology at Yale University.
The Incas considered mountains sacred: The higher the mountain, the closer to divinities represented by the sun and the moon. ''It was almost a spiritual moment when we saw the face of the first girl," said Ceruti. ''At the summit, I looked at her and tried to imagine her last moments." For Ceruti, Reinhard, and the rest of the team, however, the search is far from over. They know the high Andes have many secrets left to tell. The day after announcing their find, the crew set out again for Mount Llullaillaco to continue their search.