Monday, December 26, 2022

Llullaillaco, an Inca Burial in the High Andes

Besides their other talents, the Inca were remarkable mountaineers, able to climb the highest of the Andes and build things on top. That's Llullaillaco in the picture above, a volcano that rises to 22,109 feet (6,739 m). On top is the world's highest archaeological site. 

That site (above) is the burial place of three young people who were offered in sacrifice in a rite called capacocha. This word, rendered into Spanish with numerous spellings, seems to mean something like "royal obligation." The Spaniards wrote about it gleefully, of course, because nothing makes your enemies seem more evil than sacrificing children. But the Spanish sources make it clear that this was not a common thing. The only cases they knew of were performed after the deaths of Inca rulers or disasters like major earthquakes, and our sources say that it could only be done with the approval of the Inca himself.

The site was discovered in 1999, and the excavation was quite a feat. Just climbing up to the top of a 22,000-foot mountain is an achievement, let along spending two weeks there making a careful excavation. The site consisted of a platform made of gravel, surrounded by a stone retaining wall. There was no other marking of the burials, which had to be found by digging out the gravel. The three victims were a young woman about 14, a girl about 5 who is known as the Lightning Girl because she was struck by lighting and burned sometime after being buried, and a boy, also about 5. Wikipedia has pictures of the mummies if you want to see them; it surprises me that the display of the mummies in a purpose-built museum has not been more controversial, but I guess Peru is different from North America.

The victims were buried with lavish grave goods. The young woman wore this feather headdress, which has the same form as those worn by senior Inca officials and priests. You can see that the preservation is extraordinary.

Some of the items found near the Lightning Girl; notice the sandals, which were not on her feet. Small bags containing food and coca leaves were also placed with the burials.

One of the figurines, made of silver, llama wool cloth, and feathers, 23 cm tall (9 inches). 

Llama figurines buried near the young woman.

And a gold figurine buried near the girl.

Since the initial publication of these finds a lot of science has been thrown at them. We know that the victims were heavily drugged with alcohol and cocaine when they died, and that they had been taking a lot of cocaine for months before they were carried up the mountain. Their diets seem to have gotten much richer in their final months, with a lot more meat than they had eaten before; this confirms accounts saying the victims were treated with great respect before their deaths. They were not related. Spanish accounts say that the children were selected for their physical perfection, and that noble families from across the empire competed to have their children chosen, because of the honor it conferred on the family.

It is hard to imagine what any of this was like. First, the priests travelling the kingdom looking for suitable victims, a twisted version of those fairy tales in which they were seeking out a bride for the prince. Then the preparation of the victims, with a carefully chosen diet and a daily program of religious rituals lasting months. Meanwhile, men climbed to the mountaintop to build the platform and prepare the graves. 

At last the procession to the mountaintop, carrying the drugged children and the offerings, accompanied by music. Not much had to be done to kill the victims; at 22,000 feet, just leaving them on the ground scantily clad did the trick, if they had not died on the way up. Dead or dying, they were placed in the prepared graves, their gifts around them, and gravel piled over them. Their work done, the men marched back down the mountain toward warmth, oxygen, and lives that went on.

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