Part of the morbid allure of mummies lies in their surreal out-of-time physicality. Mummies from around the world offer people a glimpse into the literal, tangible past, bringing history to life in a way no written chronicle can. And when it comes to making ancient life seem real, few human relics can match the impact of the Mummy Juanita, AKA the Inca Ice Maiden.
In 1995, internationally-renowned anthropologist Johan Reinhard, along with his climbing companion, Miguel Zárate, discovered the ice mummy Juanita in the Andes. Uncannily well-preserved - even her organs and the contents of her stomach were intact - Juanita immediately captivated researchers. She's believed to have been an Inca child, sacrificed to appease the gods around the year 1450. She was a mummy long before she was found. Nevertheless, if it hadn't been for the volcanic eruption that effectively dislodged her resting place, she might never have been discovered at all.
Today, Juanita has been relocated from her icy tomb. She sits on display at the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries in Arequipa, Peru, where she seems to greet visitors from across the centuries.
She Was Probably Chosen For Sacrifice Before Birth
According to some experts, many Incan child sacrifices were selected at birth. According to decorated travel writer Margie Goldsmith, the "healthiest, strongest, and most attractive child" was generally chosen for the "honor" of slaughter. Candidates who came from nobility, as Juanita likely did, were given special precedence over members of the working class.
This might explain why Juanita's umbilical cord was preserved along with her body: it suggests a fate that was already irrevocably established.
Why Juanita was sacrificed remains a mystery. Scholars believe that her type of ritualistic end was meant to appease the mountain gods, thereby ensuring rain, good crops, and protection. But the necessity of sacrifice could also be triggered by other major events, like natural disasters or the unexpected passing of prominent leaders, which were seen as indications of the gods' displeasure.
The Explorers Who Found Juanita Almost Gave UpPhoto: The Ice Maiden:Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes (2005) - Johan Reinhard / National Geographic Society / Fair Use
Explorer Johan Reinhard and his crew were on an expedition to the Andes Mountains to try and find any sort of Incan artifact on the mountains. He originally visited the Andes in the 1980s and had vowed to do more research about Incan culture. In 1995, he brought his team to Mount Ampato to continue his exploration.
They searched for a week and nearly gave up before Reinhard decided last minute to climb the summit of Llullaillaco. He saw some dirt that looked like "fill" dirt, or dirt that people had walked on habitually. He followed it, and from there found a rare type of sea shell that had a llama carved into it. Then he knew he had found an important site, and not far from there, Juanita was waiting.
She Was Only Found Because Of A Volcanic Eruption
Juanita might have remained atop Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes indefinitely, were it not for a nearby volcanic eruption that caused the peak's snowcap to melt, thereby dislodging her burial site and sending her tumbling down the mountain.
In 1995, anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his assistant, Miguel Zárate, discovered the ragged bundle containing Juanita's remains. Along with her incredibly preserved corpse, they found pottery and miniature sculptures of llamas, which were likely intended to be gifts for the gods it was assumed she'd meet in the afterlife.
Her Display Unit Is A Work Of Art ItselfVideo: YouTube
In 1996, Juanita was moved to the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., where she remained extremely preserved. That's partially due to a specially acclimatized conservation display. Why is this necessary? Juanita - and other cold weather mummies like her - are preserved so well because of how cold they are.
Such mummies need a combination of low temperatures and dry, thin air - something museums typically don't have. Well-preserved remains need high tech chambers that mimic cold mountain air so they don't start to decompose.