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The Incan Child Sacrifices

More than 500 years ago, three children climbed up the Llullaillaco volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile and never came back down. They were the probable victims of human sacrifice. In 1999, they were discovered in a chamber at the summit of the volcano. They were perfectly mummified in the cold, dry mountain air.

The three children consisted of: a girl of around 6-years-old, a boy of around 7-years-old and a teenage girl of around 13-years-old. The youngest girl was dubbed the “Lightning Girl” due to the fact she had been struck by lightning, the boy was dubbed as the “Llullaillaco Boy” and the oldest girl was dubbed as the Llullaillaco Maiden.” All three had been well-preserved, particularly the eldest girl. They were all  part of an Incan ritual known as capacocha, wherein children were killed or left to die of exposure to appease the mountain gods. Since their discovery, they have been examined by a number of scientists in a bid to learn more about their short life and tragic death. Most of what they have discovered has come from the Llullallico mummies’ hair, which absorbs materials circulating in the bloodstream.


Two of the Llullaillaco mummies at the summit of Llullaillaco Volcano. Credit: Penn Museum.

In 2007, scientists studied their DNA and isotopes – chemical signatures – which gave a snapshot of what the children had eaten at different times in their lives.1 It was discovered that in the year before the children died, they had gone from living off a peasant diet of mostly potatoes to consuming more animal protein, maize, cocoa and alcohol. This indicates that their diets had changed after they had been selected for sacrifice, presumably to fatten them up. In fact, the Lullallico Maiden had chewed up cocoa leaves still in her mouth when she was found. The children had been groomed for death for around a year.

When the Lullaillaco Maiden was found, she was sitting cross-legged with her head slumped forwards and her arms resting loosely on her lap. There was no evidence of violence to her – or the younger girl – leading scientists to theorise that they had been drugged and then placed in the chamber where they had died of exposure. The young boy’s clothing was covered in vomit and diarrhoea. His vomit was stained red by the hallucinogenic drug, achiote. The young boy met a horrific end. He died from suffocation; his textile wrapping was drawn so tight that it crushed his ribs and dislocated his pelvis.2

Changes in the hair indicated that the children had began their pilgrimage some three to four months prior to their death and that they likely came from Cuzco, the Inca capital. “It looks to us as though the children were led up to the summit shrine in the culmination of a year-long rite, drugged and then left to succumb to exposure,” said Dr. Timothy Taylor, a researcher in archaeological science at Bradford University. Lead researcher, Dr. Andrew Wilson, said: “From later colonial period accounts, we have indications that children, often as young as four, and “acllas,” or chosen women selected around puberty, were donated for sacrifice by their parents and from communities which were under control of the Inca empire.”3

It was theorised that the children were not only sacrificed to pacify the mountain gods but to also instil fear and respect for an imperial power: “Although some may wish to view these grim deaths within the context of indigenous belief systems, we should not forget that the Inca were imperialists too and the treatment of such peasant children may have served to instil fear and facilitate social control over remote mountain areas.,” said Dr. Taylor.

Footnotes:

  1. Bradford Telegraph and Argus, 3 October, 2007 – “Mummies Give Up Secrets of Final Diet”
  2. The Daily Telegraph, 2 October, 2007 – “Ice Maiden Fattened Up for Sacrifice”
  3. Yorkshire Post, 29 July, 2013 – “Hair gives Up Secrets of an Inca Maiden’s Sacrifice”
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