Mummy hair reveals that young victims were heavy users of coca and alcohol.
Three Inca mummies found near the lofty summit of in Volcán Llullaillaco Argentina were so well preserved that they put a human face on the ancient ritual of capacocha—which ended with their sacrifice.Now the bodies of 13-year-old Llullaillaco Maiden and her younger companions Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl have revealed that mind-altering substances played a part in their deaths and during the year-long series of ceremonial processes that prepared them for their final hours.
Under biochemical analysis, the Maiden’s hair yielded a record of what she ate and drank during the last two years of her life. This evidence seems to support historical accounts of a few selected children taking part in a year of sacred ceremonies—marked in their hair by changes in food, coca, and alcohol consumption—that would ultimately lead to their sacrifice.
In Inca religious ideology, the authors note, coca and alcohol could induce altered states associated with the sacred. But the substances likely played a more pragmatic role as well, disorienting and sedating the young victims on the high mountainside to make them more accepting of their own grim fates.Well-Preserved History
The Maiden and her young counterparts, found in 1999, exist in a remarkable state of natural preservation due to frigid conditions just below the mountain’s 22,110-foot (6,739-meter) summit.
“In terms of mummies that are known around the world, in my opinion she has to be the best preserved of any of the mummies that I’m aware of,” said forensic and archaeological expert Andrew Wilson, of the University of Bradford (U.K.). “She looks almost as if she’s just fallen asleep.”
It is this incredible level of preservation that made possible the kinds of technical analysis that, paired with the pristine condition of the artifacts and textiles arrayed in the tomb-like structure, allowed experts to re-create the events that took place in this thin air some 500 years ago.
“I suppose that’s what makes this all the more chilling,” Wilson added. “This isn’t a desiccated mummy or a set of bones. This is a person; this is a child. And this data that we’ve generated in our studies is really pointing to some poignant messages about her final months and years.”
Before the Final Day
Because hair grows about a centimeter a month and remains unchanged thereafter, the Maiden’s long, braided locks contain a time line of markers that record her diet, including consumption of substances like coca and alcohol in the form of chicha, a fermented brew made from maize.
The markers show she appears to have been selected for sacrifice a year before her actual death, Wilson explained. During this period her life changed dramatically, as did her surging consumption of both coca and alcohol, which were then controlled substances not available for everyday use. “We suspect the Maiden was one of the acllas, or chosen women, selected around the time of puberty to live away from her familiar society under the guidance of priestesses,” he said, noting that this practice is described in the accounts of Spaniards who chronicled information on such rites given to them by the Inca.
A previous DNA and chemical study, also led by Wilson, examined changes in the Maiden’s diet and found marked improvements during the year before her death, including the consumption of elite foods like maize and animal protein, perhaps llama meat. Now it’s clear that the Maiden’s consumption of coca also rose heavily throughout the year before her death, spiking dramatically 12 months before her death and again 6 months before her death.“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 terms of the use of coca.”
The Maiden consistently used coca at a high level during the last year of her life, but her alcohol consumption surged tellingly only in her last weeks.