• Sciencenow


More than 500 years ago, three children climbed the Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina and never returned, the probable victims of human sacrifice. Their bodies — naturally mummified in the cold, dry mountain air — have been studied by scientists since they were discovered, sitting in shrines, in 1999.

Now new evidence shows that coca and alcohol might have played a more than ceremonial role in their deaths.

The children — a boy and girl about 4 or 5 years old and a girl whom archaeologists call the Llullaillaco Maiden, who was about 13 — were part of an Incan ritual known as “capacocha,” in which children were killed or left to die of exposure.

Most of what scientists know about the Llullaillaco mummies comes from their hair, which absorbs materials circulating in the bloodstream. In 2007, scientists analyzed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes found in the Maiden’s tightly braided locks and learned that about a year before she died, she went from eating mostly potatoes to consuming more animal protein and corn.

In a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists measured key metabolites in the Maiden’s hair and saw that her consumption of coca and alcohol began to increase around the same time that her diet changed. Her coca use peaked about six months before she died, while her alcohol consumption skyrocketed in her final weeks. The boy and the girl also ingested the two drugs, but in much smaller amounts.

“We’re starting to see a picture . . . of an emerging sequence of events that culminated in (the Maiden’s) sacrifice,” said Andrew Wilson, an archaeologist at Britain’s University of Bradford who led both the 2007 research project and the new study.

He suspects that the Maiden’s initial change in diet and drug consumption probably coincided with her selection as an “aclla,” or “chosen woman.” These women were “selected to live apart from their families at around the age of puberty, probably under the guardianship of priestesses.” Acllas were trained to produce “chicha,” a fermented corn drink that was probably the Maiden’s principal source of alcohol. Coca was a “revered” ritual substance, Wilson said.

Although historical sources report that being selected as a capacocha sacrifice was considered an honor, Wilson wondered if the alcohol may have been used to sedate the Maiden in the weeks leading up to her death. He suspects that the Maiden, at least, was heavily sedated, placed in the shrine and left to die.

While other high altitude Incan mummies show signs of head trauma, the Llullaillaco trio appear to have died peacefully. There were “no outward signs of fear,” such as vomiting or defecation in the Maiden’s shrine, Wilson said, and the fact that she was found sitting in a cross-legged position surrounded by intact offerings suggests that she didn’t struggle.

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