Image: Pedro Groover
Image: Pedro Groover
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: five feet beneath the rocks lay what Reinhard has since called “the best-preserved Inca mummies ever found.”
Image: Johan Reinhard
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 her unearthing 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.
And, ultimately, the two child mummies found alongside the Maiden were each also given their own nicknames: “Llullaillaco Boy” and “Lightning Girl.” The male child was determined to have been around five years of age at the time of his death; meanwhile, the female had, it appeared, been four when she passed away. It seems, too, that both had been of a lower social standing than the Maiden.
Image: via Live Science
But how was it discovered that the two children had been inferior in status to the Maiden? Well, analysis of the teenager’s hair revealed a fascinating distinction between her and her companions. The DNA study determined, you see, that the Maiden had eaten a distinctly different diet to those of her tomb-mates.
Image: Robert Simmon
The investigation into the types of food that the three individuals had consumed when they were alive was published in 2013 – though it had actually been completed six years previously. And the research was led by Andrew Wilson of the U.K.’s University of Bradford.
In particular, Wilson and his researchers found that the two children’s diets in the years before their deaths had actually been equivalent to those of peasants. And, more specifically, the team supposed that they would have been eating mostly vegetables – especially potatoes.
However – and thanks to the accuracy of the researchers’ testing – the team were also able to see that the eating habits of the younger girl and boy had changed dramatically in the 12 months or so leading up to their deaths. During this period, it appeared, the servants had begun eating luxurious foods such as maize – perhaps even llama.
And, interestingly, these more lavish foodstuffs suggested that the young children had at that time become exposed to the Inca elite diet. The Maiden herself, meanwhile, had apparently already been feasting on these special kinds of food for some time, according to the experts.
What’s more, the hair samples that were taken from the mummies allowed archaeologists to identify a fascinating difference between the circumstances of the individuals. Specifically, the scientists deduced, the Maiden had ingested much higher quantities of coca leaves – the source of cocaine – and alcohol than her younger companions.
Such findings therefore implied that the Maiden was in fact the most significant figure in the tomb. Furthermore, it’s thought that owing to the sheer amount of intoxicating substances in the Maiden’s system, she would have been practically numb to her impending sacrificial death. And the event most certainly was a sacrifice.
One theory has it that the three young people were slaughtered in a rite known as “capacocha” – which can be roughly translated to mean “royal obligation.” And given that it was apparently rare for Incans to perform this kind of ceremony, it would therefore have been deemed a profound privilege for the Maiden and her younger companions to be dispatched in this way.
Supposedly, the Incans hoped that by sacrificing pure, beautiful children, those young people would exist in utopia with the gods. It was suggested, too, that the victims would ultimately act as liaisons between the deities and the community’s holy men.
Image: via YouTube/Pinoy Target Trends
Another line of thinking, though, has proposed that the Maiden’s sacrifice could have been more politically driven. Andrew Wilson in particular has theorized that the Maiden was selected as one of the “acllas” – or “chosen ones.” He believes she then moved in with priestesses in the Incans’ principal city of Cusco until it was time to travel to the top of Llullaillaco.
Furthermore, according to Wilson, the Maiden’s coca ingestion had been at its highest half a year prior to her death – a period coinciding, perhaps, with a ritual relating to the imminent sacrifice. And this demonstration would, it’s thought, have been a way for the Incans to boast about the event across their domain.
Yet while the Maiden is not believed to have died a very painful death, unfortunately the same cannot be said for sure about the Llullaillaco Boy. Certainly, blood was found on his head; and his was also the only body to have been bound, signifying that he could have suffocated.
Meanwhile, the Lightning Girl – who received this nickname because the mummy was struck by a bolt from the blue – probably froze to death without suffocation. And this fate is assumed to be similar to the one that befell the Maiden. The teenager may have met her end in a much calmer manner, however, owing to her greater consumption of coca and alcohol.
In any case, the discovery of such perfectly preserved mummies was likely a revelation for the researchers. With the find, they were, after all, afforded the rare and extraordinary opportunity to peek half a millennium into the past. And, intriguingly, the scientists were also able to piece together the fascinating – albeit macabre – events that had taken place atop that mountain.
Image: Joseph Castro
“For me, it’s almost like the children are able to reach out to us to tell us their own stories,” Wilson told National Geographicin 2013. “Hair, especially, is such a personal thing, and here it’s able to provide some compelling evidence and tell us a very personal story – even after five centuries.”
Moreover, as Wilson told Live Science in 2013, “The exciting thing about these individuals is that they probably still have much more to tell us. Locked in their tissues are many stories still to unfold.” And we certainly cannot wait to hear all about them, either.