Scientists have reconstructed in unprecedented detail how a 13-year-old mummified Inca maiden received increasing amounts of coca plant extracts and alcohol before she became a victim of child sacrifice nearly 600 years ago in the Andes mountains.
A: A photograph showing a bulge in the mummified Inca maiden’s left cheek, caused by a coca quid. B: An X-ray image of the interior of her mouth shows the coca quid in green held between the teeth; C and D: Three-dimensional images of the teen’s skull (yellow), teeth (orange) and tongue (red), and the coca quid (green). Photograph by Johan Reinhard
An international team of researchers has used samples of her hair and X-ray images to provide fresh insights into the final months of the teen, found in a mountaintop shrine in northwest Argentina in 1999 along with the frozen remains of a younger boy and a girl.
Archaeologists have long believed that the three children found near the summit of Llullaillaco volcano were sacrificed in an Inca rite. The extreme cold at the shrine’s 6,700m altitude had turned their bodies into the world’s best naturally preserved set of mummies found so far.
Now bio-archaeologist Andrew Wilson at the University of Bradford in the UK and his colleagues have found evidence that the maiden ingested increasing levels of coca and alcohol starting about 12 months before her death. Their findings appeared on July 29 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The changes we see provide graphic evidence for concurrent use of alcohol and coca in large quantities in the final weeks,” Wilson told The Telegraph.
The scientists analysed the levels of metabolites of coca, which contains cocaine as its major alkaloid, and alcohol in her hair and deduced increasing consumption in the final weeks.
The studies and X-ray images also reveal that she was chewing coca quid even in her final moments.
The researchers say the pattern of coca and alcohol consumption may have been necessary to help her during the climb up the mountain and the ceremony that led to her death.
“She would have known what was happening to her,” said Emma Brown, a team member at Bradford University.
The analysis also shows that the likely source of the alcohol was a type of beer from maize called chicha that was part of elite lifestyle among the Incas. The alcohol, which acts as a sedative, could have reduced whole-body sensations and the discomfort from cold, Wilson and his colleagues said.
Their study of the teen’s intestinal contents suggests she had her last meal between two and seven hours before death. The alcohol would have also caused a drop in her body temperature and impaired the shivering reflex, hastening her death.
“We believe the combined effects of alcohol, cold and altitude contributed to her death,” Brown told this newspaper. “There is no sign of violence.”
Child sacrifice by the Incas had been extensively documented by writers after the Spanish conquest of South America. Spanish writer Juan de Betanzos, for instance, had written in the 16th century that the Incas used to sacrifice children and bury them on land the Incas had occupied.
All three Llullaillaco mummies are now preserved in a museum at Salta, Argentina.