In 1999, three 500-year-old mummies were discovered near the peak of the Llullaillaco Volcano on the Chile-Argentina border. They were children. The oldest, known as the Ice Maiden, was only 13 years old; experts estimated the other two, a boy and a girl, were four or five years old.
The Llullaillaco mummies represent an exciting find for the scientific community, shedding light on the ancient practice of Incan sacrifice. It is likely all three died in a ritual called Capacocha, in which they were sacrificed to the Sun God. Their bodies were shockingly well-preserved; the freezing, thin air in the high mountains turned them into frozen mummies naturally. They looked like they simply fell asleep.
The three mummies - the Maiden, the Llullaillaco Boy, and the Lightning Girl (earning this moniker since she appears lightning-struck) - are all on display in Salta, Argentina. They continue providing researchers with clues to the fascinating and tragic lives they led in the ancient Incan Empire.
The Mountaintop Conditions Were Perfect For Preserving The Children's Bodies
The three children evidently froze in their sleep just shy of the 22,000-foot peak of Mount Llullaillaco. Unlike other mummies from around the world, there were no substances, natural or man-made, used to preserve the bodies. The climate alone - freezing temperatures and extremely dry, thin air - kept the tissues intact. Their bodies were essentially frozen.
The children are among the most well-preserved mummies in the world. The bodies' hair, skin, facial features, blood, and internal organs are all still intact, providing researchers with a goldmine of clues about the lives of Incan sacrifices.
All Three Children Showed Signs Of Drug And Alcohol Use
Experts theorize the children, specifically the older girl, spent their final year living in Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Incan Empire. She devoted her last year preparing for her trip to the mountain by "weaving textiles and brewing chicha."
Common in Incan culture were chicha, a corn-based beer, as well as the coca leaf, from which cocaine is a byproduct. Both, however, were controlled substances and not available for the general population. Tests of the children's hair showed in the year before their deaths, their consumption of chicha and coca increased significantly.
This was notably true for the 13-year-old girl, who showed spikes in usage roughly six months before her death, and then again in the month leading up to the event.
Experts believe the beer and drugs were either part of the festivals they took part in, or used to sedate the children to keep them calm during the sacrifice. Researchers also found a coca packet in the girl's mouth, which may have helped soothe her in her icy tomb.
Using Hair, Researchers Gained A Wealth Of Information About The Mummies' Former Lives
The uncovered 13-year-old Ice Maiden's long, intricately braided hair gave researchers valuable clues. Hair essentially acts as a record of what is going on in a person's life. Since it grows consistently at about one centimeter per month, the scientists studying the Llullaillaco mummies could assemble a timeline of the children's final year of life.
An analysis of the hair revealed what the children ate, with their diets changing to include higher-end foods like meat and maize (corn). It also disclosed their usage of chicha (corn-based beer) and coca had increased, spiking at several points throughout the year. This supposedly correlated with their attendance at festivals leading up to their sacrifice, as well as the preparation for their deaths.
The Three Children Most Likely Had Very Different Roles
Studies of the three Llullaillaco mummies showed the children were not related to each other, but may have had similar beginnings in life. Some sources claim all three children came from modest backgrounds, and became elevated to "elite status" through their sacrifice for the empire.
Other sources, however, theorize the two younger children were already on a higher social level than the older girl, and were possibly even royals. Their elongated skulls suggest their upper-class status, as they likely formed through deliberate head-wrapping.
Whatever start the two younger children had in life, their role in death was seemingly to serve as attendants for the older girl. Although all three gave their lives in the Capacocha ceremony, only the older girl received noticeable special treatment before death. She was also the sole child with elaborate braids, while the boy had an infestation of nits in his hair.
Death For The Older Girl Was Likely Peaceful, But The Young Boy Showed Signs Of A Struggle
The burial site of the Llullaillaco mummies was a peaceful one. The sacred objects surrounding the mummies remained undisturbed, and the children looked as if they had drifted off to sleep. The younger girl became known as the Lightning Girl because lightning partially burned her body long after her death, but she most likely went to sleep quietly in the freezing tomb. However, the Llullaillaco Boy might have struggled, especially since a small amount of blood was on his clothing.
Not all Capacocha sacrifice sites are as peaceful, with many showing signs of violence. According to forensic and archeological expert Andrew Wilson, "Either they got it right, in terms of perfecting the mechanisms of performing this type of sacrifice, or these children went much more quietly."
The Children Looked Like They Were Sleeping, Unnerving Researchers
When scientists work with mummies, they are usually working with bones, dried tissue, and features no longer resembling human faces. However, with the Llullaillaco mummies, researchers worked with bodies appearing as if they're still alive. In an interview with the New York Times, the director of the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, Dr. Gabriel Miremont, said working with the three children felt "almost more like a kidnapping than archeological work."
Archeological expert Andrew Wilson also reflected on the startlingly well-preserved bodies in a 2013 interview:
I suppose that's what makes this all the more chilling. This isn't a desiccated mummy or a set of bones. This is a person; this is a child. And this data that we've generated in our studies is really pointing to some poignant messages about her final months and years.