Juanita – the ‘Ice Maiden’

Local climber Miguel Zárate was guiding an expedition on Nevado Ampato (6288m) in 1992 when he found curious wooden remnants, suggestive of a burial site, exposed near the icy summit. In September 1995 he convinced American mountaineer and archaeologist Johan Reinhard to climb the peak, which, following recent eruptions of nearby volcano Sabancaya, had been coated by ash, melting the snow below and exposing the site more fully. Upon arrival, they immediately found a statue and other offerings, but the burial site had collapsed and there was no sign of a body. Ingeniously, the team rolled rocks down the mountainside and, by following them, Zárate was able to spot the bundled mummy of an Inca girl, which had tumbled down the same path when the icy tomb had crumbled.

The girl's body had been wrapped and almost perfectly preserved by the icy temperatures for about 500 years. It was immediately apparent from the remote location of her tomb and from the care and ceremony surrounding her death (as well as the crushing blow to her right eyebrow) that this 12- to 14-year-old girl had been sacrificed to the gods at the summit. For the Incas, mountains were gods who could kill by volcanic eruption, avalanche or climatic catastrophes. These violent deities could only be appeased by sacrifices from their subjects, and the ultimate sacrifice was that of a child.

It took the men days to carry the frozen bundle down to the village of Cabanaconde. From here she was transported on a regal bed of frozen foodstuffs in Zárate’s own domestic freezer to the Universidad Católica (Catholic University) in Arequipa to undergo a battery of scientific examinations. Quickly dubbed ‘Juanita, the ice maiden,’ the mummy was given her own museum in 1998 (Museo Santuarios Andinos). In total, almost two dozen similar Inca sacrifices have been discovered atop various Andean mountains since the 1950s.