On March 16, 1999, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard and his team could finally rest for a spell. They had spent three days in heavy snowfall and ferocious winds atop the more than 20,000-foot-high summit of South America’s Mount Llullaillaco, searching for this very site. But they could not have been prepared for what they would eventually uncover: 5 feet beneath the rocks lay what Reinhard has since called “the best-preserved Inca mummies ever found.”
Straddling the border between Argentina and Chile in the Atacama Desert, Llullaillaco is the highest active volcano on Earth. Not only that, but its summit is also home to the most elevated archaeological site in the world. Yet Llullaillaco has arguably become most famous for the remarkable remains that were unearthed near its peak in 1999.
There were, in fact, three mummies found at this Andes mountain range location, with the oldest of the three recovered bodies thought to have belonged to a teenaged girl. Nicknamed the Maiden of Llullaillaco, this mummy was so well preserved upon being unearthed that even the hair was viable for testing. The organs were totally undamaged, too, having been kept intact by the freezing conditions. What’s more, the girl’s body was still dressed in clothes, and a feather headdress remained tucked into her intricately woven hair. Small tokens also surrounded the remains.