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Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña

The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology was inaugurated in 2004 to preserve, research and exhibit a unique collection: the mummified bodies of two children and a young woman from the Inca period, offered to the gods in a Capacocha ceremony on the Llullaillaco volcano (6739 m), at the border between Argentina and Chile, with over 100 burial objects.

The finding area, a platform of about 10 x 6 m just below the mountain peak, is the highest archaeological site in the world. The sanctuary remained untouched for more than 500 years, which is extremely rare. When the expedition opened the three tombs under the platform in 1999, the bodies with their offerings were so well conserved due to the freezing cold, low humidity and lack of microorganisms that they rank among the best naturally preserved mummies in the world.

The complicated recovery was followed by years of interdisciplinary research, first at the Catholic University of Salta and then at the museum equipped with special technology for cryopreservation. Through paleoradiology, odontological studies, hair and DNA analyses, etc., important scientific conclusions could be drawn about the people, daily life and ritual practices of the Inca period.

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In the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, only one of the three mummies at a time is on display in a glass-enclosed cold chamber. Vitrines show funerary objects belonging to each sacrificed individual, including anthropomorphic female and male figurines with bodies of gold or silver and feather crowns, as well as various objects with ritual significance (see further below.)

The 6739 m high Llullaillaco in the Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile is considered the second highest historically active volcano in the world. It erupted for the last time in 1877.

From the base to the summit, the Inca built several stations, such as a tambo (shelter for travelers, messengers, soldiers, etc.) at 5200 m as a starting point for the ascent in pre-Hispanic times. After members of the Club Andino Chile succeeded in the first sportive ascent in 1952, they reported about ruins they had seen on the summit. Scientific exploration of the archaeological sites at Llullaillaco began in 1958 and 1961 with expeditions led by the Austrian Mathias Rebitsch, followed by expeditions from other teams.

The anthropologist Johan Reinhard from the USA had already done research at Llullaillaco in 1983, 1984 and 1985 and mentioned in publications the importance of a platform of about 10 x 6 m at an altitude of 6715 m, shortly below the summit, on which human sacrifices could have taken place. This hypothesis was the starting point for the large expedition organized by Reinhard in March 1999 with the Argentine archaeologist María Constanza Ceruti and other experts from Peru and Argentina. On March 17, first the boy and the 15-year-old woman (Doncella) and two days later the Lightning Girl (Niña del Rayo) were discovered under the cult platform at a depth of 1.5 to 2 meters, together with the offerings that accompanied them.

The sacrificial victims on Llullaillaco were not beaten to death or strangled, as often happened in such rituals, according to chronicles. After the hardships of a 1500 km pilgrimage as part of the Capacocha ceremony (see further below) and the extremely arduous climb to one of the highest mountains on the continent, the two girls fell asleep exhausted and froze to death in the extreme cold. The boy probably died of altitude sickness on the last part of the way. (Ceruti, 2012). As analyses revealed, the children had been given alcohol and coca over a long period of time and the dose had been greatly increased in the days before the sacrifice. The bodies were not mummified by priests, but remained permanently frozen in a natural way.

The 7-year-old boy's legs, crossed in front of his torso, were tied with a rope, probably to better carry him in case he actually died before reaching the summit. A white feather crest on his head bent forward is held by a natural-colored wool ribbon wrapped several times. His hair is cut short at his neck. On his feet he has leather moccasins. Both arms hang down the body. The right forearm is adorned with a silver bracelet. The boy wears a tunic made of the red dyed wool of a llama or other camelid. He was sitting on a folded tunic or uncu (knee-length garment). A woven red and brown cloak was wrapped around the head and torso as an outer covering for the bundle of the dead. For the funerary objects, see the image page.

The Boy, photo

(Summary by Universes in Universe from information in: Ceruti, 2003)

The 6-year-old "Lightning Girl" has been named as such because she was struck by lightning, which penetrated more than a meter deep into the earth. It charred the outer cloths around her and burned parts of her body and face, which is framed by braided pigtails. The eyelids are half closed, and teeth can be seen in the slightly open mouth. The forehead was adorned with an unusual silver metal headdress. Legs are bent and crossed, hands rest on the thighs. The girl wears a wrap dress (acsu) held around her waist by a multicolored sash, and a cloak (lliclla) pinned together with a large needle (tupu). The feet are in moccasins made of the leather of a camelid from the Andes.
The Lightning Girl in the exhibition and information and photos of the burial objects can be seen on the image pages.

Lightning Girl, photo

(Summary by Universes in Universe from information in: Ceruti, 2003)

The 15-year-old female may have been one of the "chosen women" (acllakuna) who had to grow up secluded and virginal until they were sacrificed to the sun god Inti. She was found in a semi-recumbent position with her head lowered on her chest, on which she wore a white feather crown, lying in the tomb next to her. There are reddish pigments on the cheekbones and around the lips and tiny pieces of coca leaves under the nose. The long hair is braided into thin plaits. The arms and hands rest folded on the stomach. The girl is dressed in a brown acsu (wrap dress) and a multicolored sash around her waist. A grayish cloak over her shoulders is held in place by a pin (tupu). On her right shoulder above the dress she wears a series of peculiar bone and metal pendants as jewelry. The bare feet are in moccasins. The dead woman was wrapped in a sand-colored cloth with colored trim, complemented by a similar fabric that wrapped the head and torso. On the right shoulder of the maiden lay folded a precious uncu (knee-length garment) with blue, red and yellow bands and checkerboard pattern ( photo and information). Through interdisciplinary examinations, the maiden's diet could be determined - and also a considerably increased consumption of coca and alcohol towards the end of her life.

The Maiden, photo

(Summary by Universes in Universe from information in: Ceruti, 2003)

The sacrifice and ritual burial on the Llullaillaco have been the climax and conclusion of a Capacocha ceremony. Chroniclers in the early colonial period reported on the occasions, procedures, and religious contexts of this strictly regulated state cult. Such human sacrifices took place in the capital city of Cuzco and at sacred sites (huacas) in remote provinces of the vast Tawantinsuyu (Inca Empire). The selected for sacrifice were sent as messengers with offerings to the gods and in the ritual became offerings themselves. Capacochas were supposed to appease and pay homage to the imperial gods and local mountain spirits, bring good fortune and well-being to the Inca, who was divinely revered as the son of the sun, and consolidate his power, ensure the fertility of the fields and herds, avert disaster.

From the chronicles it is known that local rulers (curacas) from the perifery of the empire offered their children to Capacochas in order to strengthen their relationship with the Inca. This may be the case with the two younger sacrificed on Llullaillaco. The 15-year-old female is probably one of the "chosen women" (acllakuna) who had to grow up secluded and virginal.

In a Capacocha ceremony, the victims were first brought to the capital Cuzco together with precious ceremonial objects and consecrated there. They were then sent in a caravan with priests on a very long procession to various sacred sites of the Tawantinsuyu. As hair analysis showed, they were fed with privileged food during this time. They were also given alcohol in the form of chicha (corn beer) and coca, increasing the dose as the time of sacrifice approached. During the burial, selected offerings were added to the bundles of the dead, depending on their gender (see below).

Near the dead wrapped in precious fabrics, gender-specific grave objects were buried in a specific arrangement and at varying depths (see the graphics), including offerings to the imperial gods and local mountain spirits, as well as utensils and food for the sacrificed on their way to the realm of the ancestors.

Small male and female anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures were made of gold, silver and shells of spondylus (spiny oysters) and usually positioned in rows. Chronicles of the Spanish colonial period state that the metals gold and silver had a religious significance as symbolic manifestations of the deities of the sun and moon. The male anthropomorphic figurines made of gold could represent Inca priests or dignitaries responsible for rituals, among other things, because they have the typical attributes of elongated and pierced earlobes. The female figurines are probably embodiments of acllakuna ("chosen women"), because their crowns of feathers resemble those found on female victims of the Capacocha ceremonies, including one next to the 15-year-old Doncella on Llullaillaco.

Small representations of llamas or other camelids of the Andes were certainly fertility symbols, recognizable also by the erect penis of the metal figures, which were supposed to ensure the welfare of the herds and caravans.

Analyses of the ceramic objects revealed that they originated from Cuzco, Lake Titicaca and local production. These include aryballos (vessels in the shape of an amphora) used for transporting and storing chicha (corn beer), as well as pots and jugs with handles, plates and bowls. If eating utensils and wooden drinking cups (keros) were placed in pairs in the tombs, it has to do with the Andean custom of ritual sharing of food and drink. The keros in the graves of the two girls are apparently the same ones they drank from for the last time before they died. No pair of drinking cups was found in the boy's grave, and there was a remnant of chicha in the aryballos near his body, because he was unable to drink at the summit, having already died during the ascent.

Food in cloth bags (corn, peanuts, dried potatoes, and meat) could have been intended as food for the sacrificed in the afterlife or as an offering to the spirits of the mountains and ancestors. Shortly before death, coca leaves were often placed in the mouths of the victims, as evidenced by the fragments of such leaves around the mouth and in the hands of the doncella. The chewing of coca leaves, still common in the Andes today, was a strictly regulated privilege in Inca times. The fact that children were given coca was only possible because they were prepared for the sacrificial death under the absolute control of the state.

Some figurines in the tombs are carved from spondylus shells (spiny oysters), and in the boy's tomb archaeologists found a necklace made of wool, human hair and spondylus. Called mullu in Quechua, the Incas considered these shells more valuable than gold and therefore the "favorite food" of the huacas (local deities). For this reason, whole spondylus shells were also found in the Llullaillaco tombs.

The Incas buried Capacocha victims at mountain shrines in the clothing they were wearing at the time of death, and wrapped them in cloth and cloaks to form bundles that could include pouches, spare sandals, and extra tunics. The Inca sent valuable tunics to local rulers (curacas) as diplomatic gifts. When the curacas provided their own children for Capacochas, they apparently gave them the ruler's gift to take with them to the afterlife as offerings. This could explain why valuable male tunics were found in the tombs of female victims. An example of this is the precious uncu that lay folded on the shoulder of Doncella ( photo and information).

Feather ornaments also had a special status among the Incas and were reserved for nobles and religious ceremonies. In the tomb of the lightning girl was found a cloth bag (chuspa) decorated with red feathers, which probably contained coca leaves. A similar bag with white feathers was found in the boy's grave.

In Inca times, it was customary to keep one's own hair and nails to bury with the body after death, as they were considered companions of the soul in the afterlife. All three victims on the Llullaillaco were given small leather bags, which could be made from the skin of the testicles of llamas and contained the children's own hair, as DNA analysis revealed.

(Summary by Universes in Universe from information in: Constanza Ceruti, 2015)

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Address, contact:

Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña

Bartolomé Mitre 77
A4400 Salta
Prov. Salta

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Compilation of information, editing, translations, photos: Universes in Universe, unless otherwise indicated

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