The Children Given to the Mountain

The phrase ‘human sacrifice’ is sensationalist, but it is a fact that the Inca culture sometimes sacrificed the lives of high-born children to please or appease their gods. The Inca saw this as an offering to ensure the continuing fertility of their people and the land. The high peaks of the Andes were always considered sacred, and were chosen as sacrifice sites; the Inca felt that the children would be reunited with their forefathers, who watched over the communities from the loftiest summits.

Carefully selected for the role, the children were taken to the ceremonial capital Cuzco, Peru, where they were central to a large celebration – the capacocha. Ceremonial marriages between the children helped cement diplomatic links between tribes across the empire. At the end of the fiesta, they were paraded around the plaza, then were required to return home in a straight line – an arduous journey that could take months. Once home, they were feted and welcomed, then taken into the mountains. There they were fed, and given quantities of chicha (maize alcohol). When they passed out, they were taken up to the peak of the mountain and entombed, sometimes alive, presumably never to awaken, and sometimes having been strangled or killed with a blow to the head.

Three such children were found in 1999 near the peak of Llullaillaco, a 6739m volcano 480km west of Salta, on the Chilean border. It’s the highest known archaeological site in the world. The cold, the low pressure and a lack of oxygen and bacteria helped preserve the bodies almost perfectly. The Doncella (Maiden) was about 15 years old at the time of death, and was perhaps an aclla (a ‘virgin of the sun’), a prestigious role in Inca society. The other two, a boy and girl both aged from six to seven (the girl damaged by a later lightning strike), had cranial deformations that indicate they came from high-ranking families. Each was accompanied by a selection of grave goods, which included textiles and small figurines of humanoids and camelids.

The mummies’ transfer to Salta was controversial. Many felt they should have been left where they were discovered; but once their location was known, this was impossible. Whatever your feelings about the children, and the role of archaeology, the dig was a daring feat and amazing accomplishment, and the children offer an undeniably fascinating glimpse into Inca religion and culture.