Mummies (forewarning, you may find this disturbing!)

During the past week I visited the MAAM in Salta (Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña) which is home to the human remains of the “Niños del Llullaillaco” (Llullaillaco children). These indigenous mummies were discovered in 1999 and are over 500 years old. The mummies, two girls and a boy, are incredibly well-preserved due to the region’s altitude; the Llullaillaco volcano is 6,739 meters high (22,11o feet) and the mummies were found just 82 feet from the summit.

It is unclear if the children were suffocated or left to die from exposure.  Their bodies were found at between 4 and 6 feet below the surface.  It is believed that the two girls (ages 6 and 14) died from exposure (which supposedly wouldn’t have taken long at the altitude) and that the boy (6) suffocated due to a textile wrap being so taut around his body that it broke his ribs and dislocated his pelvis.

The museum lays out a lot of information regarding the Incan culture and rituals.  To honor certain Gods or significant events, it was common to sacrifice young children. Sometimes, it seems, during the festivities the children were ‘betrothed’ in a fashion with children from another indigenous group in an effort to convey unity among the people.

According to some documentary footage at the museum, the bodies were so well-preserved that they appear to have just been buried and even their internal organs were perfectly intact.  As such, scientists have been able to perform a significant amount of tests, such as determining their ages accurately.  Their findings also suggest that the children were given maize beer (chicha) and coca leaves which would have helped with symptoms associated with altitude sickness and also to lull them toward their fates.

Their hair seems to be a key to much of what happened; after analyzing it, it is assumed that the children were “fattened up” prior to the ritual and more coca byproducts were found in the older girl’s hair presumably because she would have clued-in faster to what was going on than the other two children.

Along with the bodies, “dowries” were found.  These were additional offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) or whichever God the sacrifices were honoring.  The dowries included such things as small mats made of llama or vicuña wool, ceremonial vases and dishes, etc.  The sacrifices and dowries would have been offered to Pachamama (as a for instance) in hopes of certain weather conditions or for a strong harvest, etc.

One of the mummies “The Girl of Lightning” is actually on display in the museum in a temperature controlled environment.  She was given this name because she bears burns from a lightning bolt that penetrated more than a meter into the earth and struck her face and upper body.  Her skin, teeth, hair, are all intact.  It is very strange and creepy. It is also very sad as it is difficult to comprehend these sacrifices.

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