Incan child mummies show evidence of sacrificial rituals : Nature News & Comment

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The hair of three Incan mummies bears evidence that one of them used large amounts of coca and alcohol in the year before she died, which may have been fed to her as part of a ritual that led to her death.


The children, who were found in 1999 near the summit of the Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina, probably died about 500 years ago in a sacrificial ritual known as capacocha. In the study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by archaeologist Timothy Taylor of the University of Bradford, UK, used mass spectrometry to analyse variations in levels of chemical residues in the children’s hair in the months before their deaths.

The researchers looked for by-products of the metabolization of coca and alcohol — both important in Andean culture and ritual — and found that all three children ingested both substances in the year before they died. But the eldest — a 13-year-old girl known as the Maiden — took much more of both substances than the younger children. The pattern of consumption suggests that a series of rituals preparing her for her fate began about a year before she was left to die on top of the 6,739-metre-high Llullaillaco.

The levels of metabolites in her hair, for instance, increased about a year before her death and then shot up to very high levels about a month and a half before she died — her hair recorded the highest level of coca ever found in Andean archaeological remains, says John Verano, a biological anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“In the final stages of her life, we see a use of alcohol far beyond any exposure which she’d been used to, and a concurrent use of alcohol and coca that was very likely a means of sedating her,” says Andrew Wilson, a forensic scientist and archaeologist at the University of Bradford, and a co-author of the paper published today.

Written By: Erika Check Hayden
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  1. The researchers looked for by-products of the metabolization of coca and alcohol — both important in Andean culture and ritual — and found that all three children ingested both substances in the year before they died. But the eldest — a 13-year-old girl known as the Maiden — took much more of both substances than the younger children. The pattern of consumption suggests that a series of rituals preparing her for her fate began about a year before she was left to die on top of the 6,739-metre-high Llullaillaco.

    Scary stuff. I wonder what the parents thought of it.

    • In reply to #1 by DHudson:

      The researchers looked for by-products of the metabolization of coca and alcohol — both important in Andean culture and ritual — and found that all three children ingested both substances in the year before they died. But the eldest — a 13-year-old girl known as the Maiden — took much more of both s…

      The were probably proud that their child was selected. The act possibly elevated the status of the whole family. That’s the way things usually work, isn’t it?

      • In reply to #2 by Nitya:

        The were probably proud that their child was selected. The act possibly elevated the status of the whole family. That’s the way things usually work, isn’t it?

        Something like that, yes.
        Or maybe they had no say in the matter and it sucked big time.

  2. I can’t imagine that it sucked. There are religious practices today that still mirror these traditions. I’m sure the family believed they were being honored and probably thought they’d meet their child again in the afterlife. Even if they didn’t believe in an afterlife, they believed their child’s sacrifice was pacifying the gods thus letting everyone in the villiage live in peace at least until time for the next sacrifice.

  3. How sad.Such sorrow,misery and fear.The termination of precious life just to placate a god who is not and never was.Just as today people kill, maim and torture for gods who are not,never were and never will be.

  4. Nitya

    The were probably proud that their child was selected. The act possibly elevated the status of the whole family. That’s the way things usually work, isn’t it?

    Yes, can’t see how this differs from female or even male genital mutilation, honour killings, denial of educational rights (not just Muslims of girls but creationists) and a raft of other things. Ritual abuse in the name of Gods is still ritual abuse even if the Gods are a bit more up to date and you have to stop short of public execution!

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