Inca child sacrifices were drunk, high before death

An international team of researchers studying the three Inca mummies discovered in 1999 in an ice pit atop Llullaillaco volcano in the Argentinian Andes has found that the children drank alcohol and chewed coca leaves regularly for up to a year before they were sacrificed. The children died approximately 500 years ago in a sacrificial harvest ritual called capacocha. They walked to Cuzco, the seat of the emperor, and back again to participate in ceremonies and then were taken to the top of the volcano where they were given a maize beer called chicha until they passed out. Once they were unconscious, the priests carefully placed them in underground niches. There they froze to death.

The cold, arid, thin air of the high Andes (the summit where the children were found is 6,739 meters, more than 22,000 feet, high, the highest elevation where Inca sacrificial victims have ever been discovered) created natural mummies so well preserved that they still look like sleeping children. Many of their internal organs are intact; there is brain matter in the skull, blood in the heart and lungs, skin and hair in place.

Subsequent DNA analysis found that none of the three were related to each other. They were also in good physical condition before their death — well-fed, no injuries, no signs of violent death, although the boy was bound around the time of his death and blood on his clothing may indicate he suffocated from a pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal side-effect of altitude sickness. The eldest girl, dubbed “La Doncella” meaning “The Maiden,” had sinusitis a lung infection when she died. The younger girl was struck by lightning some time after her death, hence her nickname “La Niña del Rayo” (the lightning girl).

Flecks of coca leaf were found around the Maiden’s lips, so archaeologists have known for years that she was chewing on it right before she died. Given their long journey high up the volcano, coca leaf would have been a helpful, even necessary tool to combat altitude sickness. It was also a ritual substance used reverently for ceremonial purposes. The chicha had a ceremonial and practical role as well: it was symbolic, a product of the harvest being celebrated and it put the children to sleep to enable their death from exposure.

By studying the hair of the mummies — the long braids of the Maiden and the shorter cropped tresses of the younger children — researchers were able to put together a timeline of coca and alcohol consumption. Since the Maiden had much longer hair than the little kids, her timeline spans the last 21 months of her life. Only the last nine months of the two younger mummies’ lives could be plotted. The team discovered that the two young ones drank alcohol and chewed coca at a steady pace over their last nine months. The Maiden ingested far greater amounts of coca in the last year of her life than in the nine months before that and large amounts of alcohol in her final weeks.

At about six months before death, there was a ceremony that involved ritual hair cutting — some clippings were found with the mummies — and that coincides with a peak in coca consumption.

The coca consumption and alcohol use then begin to rise sharply again in the weeks before death, probably as the Ice Maiden and two younger children were marched from Cusco to the volcano, stopping along the way for ceremonies that likely involved large amounts of coca and chicha. […]

These festivals en route to the mountain, [Tulane University anthropologist John] Verano noted, could explain why the Ice Maiden was drinking so much corn beer along with elevated coca chewing in her final weeks.

It’s also possible, he added, that “she had a drinking problem. Maybe she started drinking beer the last year of her life and just found it to be pleasant or particularly soothing.”

She also would have realized what was coming more fully than the little ones, so maybe she had more of a reason to drink heavily.

A hair study in 2007 found that the three children ate better in their final year than they had early in life. They subsisted mainly on potatoes when they were very young, but their diets late in life consisted of llama meat and maize, elite foods in Incan society. This strongly suggests all three children were peasants who were chosen, thanks to their physical “perfection,” for ritual sacrifice. Once they were in the hands of the priests, they were fattened up and plied with alcohol and coca to prepare them for their ceremonial roles. Being chosen to die was considered a great honor and according to Incan beliefs, the sacrificed did not die but become angels guarding over their people from the mountain heights.

That the children were intoxicated just for the final ceremony isn’t the only received wisdom the new study has upended. The Maiden was previously thought to be 15 years old at the time of her death, Lightning Girl six and the boy seven. CT scans from this project found that they are all two years younger than their estimates. The Maiden was 13, the girl four and the boy five. Archaeologists also thought that the two young children may have come from nobility because their heads show sign of deliberate malformation, but if that were the case, they would not have lived on potatoes for the first years of their lives.