Young victims who use cocaine and alcohol frequently are revealed by their mummy hair.

The three Inca mummies discovered close to the impressive top of Volcán Llullaillaco in Argentina were so well preserved that they gave a human face to the lengthy ceremony known as capacocha, which culminated in their sacrifice.

The remains of the 13-year-old Llullaillaco Maiden and her younger friends, Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl, have now revealed that mind-altering drugs were used in their dying moments and the year-long series of rituals that prepared them for them.

Tests revealed that this 13-year-old used coca at a high level during the last year of her life, but her alcohol use surged only in her last weeks.

The Maiden’s hair produced a record of her diet and drinking habits over the last two years after being subjected to biochemical examination. This research appears to support historical reports of a small group of chosen youngsters participating in a year of sacred rituals that would ultimately result in their sacrifice and leave traces in their hair, such as changes in the foods they ate or the amount of wine or coca they drank.

The authors point out that cocaine and alcohol both have the potential to cause altered states connected to the sacred in Inca religious philosophy. However, it’s also likely that the drugs had a more practical purpose, hypnotizing and sedating the young victims on the high slope to help them accept their dismal destinies.


History that’s been preserved

Because of the extremely cold temperatures immediately below the mountain’s 22,110-foot (6,739-meter) summit, The Maiden and her youthful counterparts, discovered in 1999, are in an extraordinary state of natural preservation.

According to forensic and archaeological specialist Andrew Wilson of the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, she has to be the finest preserved of all the mummies that I am aware of when it comes to mummies that are well-known worldwide. “Almost like she’s just dozed off,” the speaker said.

Since the artifacts and textiles were in such perfect condition and were arranged in a tomb-like structure, it was feasible to perform the kinds of technical analyses that allowed specialists to reconstruct the events in this remote location about 500 years ago.

Wilson continued, “I suppose that makes this all the more chilling.” This isn’t just a pile of bones or a dried-up mummy. A human, a child, is what this is. And the information that we’ve gleaned from our research points to some very moving conclusions regarding her final months and years.

(Images: “Frozen Inca Mummy Goes On Display.”)

Ahead of the Last Day

The Maiden’s long, braided hair contains a timeline of milestones documenting her diet, including her usage of drugs like coca and alcohol in the form of chicha, a fermented brew derived from maize. Hair grows around a centimeter a month and stays unchanging after that.

According to the marks, Wilson said, she appears to have been chosen for sacrifice a year before her actual passing. Her life drastically changed during this time, as did her escalating usage of alcohol and cocaine, which were then considered controlled narcotics and not available for regular use. He noted that this practice is described in the accounts of Spaniards who chronicled information on such rites given to them by the Inca. “We suspect the Maiden was one of the calls, or chosen women, selected around the time of puberty to live away from her familiar society under the guidance of priestesses,” he said.

An earlier investigation into the Maiden’s diet using DNA and chemical analysis, also directed by Wilson, indicated notable improvements the year before her passing, including using upscale foods like maize and animal protein, maybe llama meat. It is now evident that the Maiden consumed a lot of cocaine in the year before her passing, with spikes that were particularly notable 12 and 6 months before her passing.

“These data fit with the suggestion that she was perhaps leading an ordinary or even peasant lifestyle up to that point, but a year before her death, she’s selected, effectively removed from that existence and the lifestyle that was familiar to her, and projected into a different existence,” Wilson said. “And now we see a massive change in the use of coca.”

The Maiden used cocaine at a high rate over the last year of her life, but her drinking increased dramatically only in the last few weeks.

“We’re probably talking about the last six to eight weeks, which show that very altered existence, that she’s either compliant in taking this or is being made to ingest such a large quantity of alcohol. Certainly, in her final weeks, she’s again entering a different state, probably one in which these chemicals, the coca, and the chicha alcohol, might be used in almost a controlling way in the final buildup to the culmination of this capacocha rite and her sacrifice.”

The medications may have made the Maiden more submissive, put her in a stupor, or possibly even rendered her comatose on the day of the Maiden’s death. That theory appears to be reinforced by her unhurried, seated position inside the tomb-like building and by the fact that the artifacts around her and the feathered headdress she wore as she passed away were left untouched. When the mummy was recovered in 1999, chewed-up coca leaves were discovered in her mouth.

Due to their lower rank in the ritual itself, their younger age, or simply their disparities in size and age, the younger children exhibit lower levels of coca and alcohol usage. Perhaps there was a greater need to sedate the Maiden because she was an older child, Wilson speculated.

These kids were allowed to go peacefully, unlike other capacocha sites that display signs of violence like cranial injuries. In terms of mastering the procedures for carrying out this kind of sacrifice, Wilson said, “Either they got it right, or these children went much more quietly.”

Sacrifices Approved By The State

Although Kelly Knudson, an archaeological chemist at Arizona State University, was not involved in the work, she said it was intriguing. She demonstrated how archaeological science could aid in understanding both the small-scale minutiae of individual lives and the bigger structures of ancient societies.

“Seeing increases in both the consumption of alcohol and coca is very interesting, both in terms of the capacocha sacrifices and their lives before they died, and also in terms of what it can tell us about Inca coercion and control,” Knudson said.

According to the study’s authors, the system of control that led these kids to a remote mountaintop at a high altitude exhibits all the characteristics of top-level state support and may have taken place due to the empire’s military and political expansion just before the arrival of the Spanish.

“The sort of logistical support needed even today to work at this altitude is extensive,” Wilson explained. “And here we’re talking about evidence that points to the highest possible, imperial-level support. Some artifacts and clothes are elite and refined products from the four corners of the Inca Empire.”

Such items include feathered headdresses from the Amazon Basin and figurines fashioned of spondylus shells that were transported from the shore. Only the wealthiest members of society could purchase wonderfully carved gold and silver statues covered with miniature clothes that had been expertly stitched. “I think the whole assemblage represents their status and the symbolism that this was undertaken under the highest possible sanction,” he added. Wilson and his co-authors contend that such sacrifices might have been a highly stratified tool for enforcing social control over huge tracts of the conquered land.

According to a study published in PloS ONE last year, the Maiden had a lung illness at the time of the sacrifice.

There is Support for Early Spanish Chronicles

The mummies were found in 1999 by Constanza Ceruti of the Catholic University of Salta (Argentina) and Johan Reinhard, an Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society.

The co-author of the current study, Reinhard, expressed special interest in how the results contrast with descriptions of similar ceremonies found in early Spanish explorers to the current World’s documented historical accounts. “They describe how these ceremonies took place, but they weren’t firsthand accounts; no Spanish ever saw one of these personally,” Reinhard said. “They depended on what the Inca had told them about what happened.”

(Juan de Betanzos reported massive child sacrifices, including up to a thousand children, in the middle of the 16th century, based on his wife’s testimony, who had previously been wed to none other than the Inca Emperor Atahualpa.)

According to Reinhard, the facts currently seem to correspond to the events detailed in the chronicles. “All of a sudden, you have this image where you practically feel what they are feeling. Better food and coca, which were only ever used in rituals, are given to them as a sign of the increased attention they are receiving. The diaries specifically mention more attention being given to these kids.

Reinhard cited the Maiden as an example of how the stories in the chronicles could explain why coca use increased in the year before the death of a selected kid.

“They talk about pilgrimages to Cuzco and a series of ceremonies during which these children would be sent from one place to another on long pilgrimages. I think it’s also interesting that a six-month period is associated with these largest spikes in coca use,” he added. “It could be six months related to something else, but a hypothesis to throw out there is that this corroborates historical accounts that some of these Virgins of the Sun were taken to solstice ceremonies during the year before they were taken off to their deaths.”

The mummies are housed in Salta, Argentina’s Museo de Arqueologa de Alta Montana (MAAM). Wilson continued, “It is exciting to the extent that their physical remains may support historical and archaeological records, but it is chilling that the children remain so recognizable as human even in death.”

“For me, it’s almost like the children can reach out to us to tell us their own stories,” he said. “Hair, especially, is such a personal thing, and here it can provide some compelling evidence and tell us a very personal story even after five centuries.”

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