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Incas Intoxicated Sacrificial Children in Preparation for Death

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Inca maiden

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN: 13-year-old Inca girl received coca and alcohol before being sacrificed 500 years ago, judging from chemical analyses of the mummy's elaborately braided hair. Meanwhile medical imaging revealed a wad of coca (green) in her mouth. Image: Photography by Johan Reinhard. Reprinted with permission.

She was killed at the age of 13 and placed in a mountaintop shrine in the Argentine high Andes–a sacrifice to the gods. There she lay for some 500 years until 1999, when archaeologists recovered her frozen body along with those of two other separately entombed children, a boy and a girl both between four and five years old. Researchers have long recognized that the three youngsters—the so-called Llullaillaco Maiden, Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl–were victims of the Inca ritual of child sacrifice, or capacocha. A new study of their naturally mummified remains further illuminates the events leading up to their interment.

Chemical analyses of the hair of the children show that all three received coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived) and alcohol before they died. Twelve months before the 13-year-old maiden was killed, her consumption of coca surged. Meanwhile, her intake of alcohol—probably in the form of chicha, which is typically made from maize–peaked in her last weeks. And computed tomographic (CT) scanning revealed a large wad of coca leaves in her mouth that she had been chewing in her final moments. Andrew S. Wilson of the University of Bradford in the U.K. and his colleagues describe the findings in a report to be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

The exact nature of the event or events that led to the sacrifice of these children is unknown. It could have been an annual Incan occasion, or it might have been an unscheduled incident, such as the death of a ruler or a natural disaster. Whatever the case, the maiden received significantly more of these substances than the younger children did, possibly suggesting “a greater need to sedate her,” the researchers report. They observe that the posture of the girl’s body and the undisturbed arrangement of her garments and surrounding ceremonial artifacts indicate that  she was heavily sedated or dead when she was placed in the shrine.

“Coca and alcohol were substances that induced altered states interpreted as sacred, and which could suggest to victims and those associated with them the proximity of the divine beings whose continued benevolence was underwritten by these rites,” Wilson and his co-authors write. “From a cross-cultural perspective, the psychologically deadening, disorienting, and mood-modifying effects of these psychoactive compounds on young victims, for whom any kind of informed consent to their own deaths cannot be unproblematically presumed, should not be downplayed.”

As for the parents compelled to sacrifice their children, they would have done so with a smile if they knew what was good for them. The authors note that according to the 1653 writings of Spanish Jesuit missionary Bernabé Cobo, “‘it was a major offense to show any sadness,’ and that ‘they were obliged to do it with gestures of happiness and satisfaction, as if they were taking their children to bestow upon them a very important reward.’”

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jakubski 10:44 am 07/30/2013

    If you think Melvin`s story is really cool…, 2 weaks-ago mom in-law also earned $9432 sitting there a twenty hour week from home and their friend’s aunt`s neighbour did this for five months and broght in more than $9432 in there spare time at there computer. applie the steps from this site……. http://www.Yad7.ℂom

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  2. 2. eddiequest 10:50 am 07/30/2013

    Apparently worked as well as praying does today.

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  3. 3. AstridPisces 2:23 pm 07/30/2013

    Do these scientist bear in mind that a 13 year old girl in those inca-days was considered an adult, ready for marriage or even heaving children already, so the fact that the use of coca and alcohol was raised in the year previous to her death, may also correlate to the fact she was working long days in the high Andes fields to provide for her own family…?
    The age of the other two children could sustain the presumptions stated, but for this 13 year old I seriously have my doubts. Most inca people of the lower class died before turning 25-30 years old!

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  4. 4. emily127 2:48 pm 07/30/2013

    ♥♥♥ ♥ ♥♥my classmate’s step-aunt makes 89 dollar every hour on the laptop
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  5. 5. mudphud 5:19 pm 07/30/2013

    @AstridPisces- I could understand coca consumption increasing with field work, but not so much the alcohol. It sounds from the description like a year of preparation for sacrifice. I agree, the informed consent comment is an odd modern ethical concept to apply to another time and culture. While a prisoner being sacrificed obviously would not consent, how do you apply that concept to someone in the community? It’s not like a medical procedure with pros and cons. If you truly believe when you are sacrificed you go to the gods, what kind of consent is there? They aren’t looking at it as death but as some kind of transformation.

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  6. 6. rock johny 4:24 am 07/31/2013

    Her state of preservation is amazing. They should put her back when done studying.

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  7. 7. AstridPisces 4:39 am 07/31/2013

    @mudphud In Europe during the Middle Ages, water was very unhealthy to drink, so poor people drank beer, even young children, to prevent them from falling ill. As water in the high Andes may have been clean as can be, it would still have been too valuable for agriculture and animals who provided milk for the children to use it for human consumption. So it would not be that odd for adults to drink alcohol…

    I do agree that being “chosen” would have been considered an honour, both for the individual and for the entire family.

    She was found with coca in her mouth. May we be cautious and open-minded enough not to lay our XXIst century-interpretations there as well.

    I am aware that the article is not that long, but I hope the study is more profound than what we read here.

    I agree with @rock johny. If possible, it would be preferable that she’d be returned to the cave where she was found and with some traditional native ceremonies brought to peace again.

    May we be thankful for the information she gave us after all those years and may we be open-minded enough to listen to what she tells us and fully understand it.

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  8. 8. AstridPisces 5:00 am 07/31/2013

    For those interested, a link I found on youtube:

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  9. 9. stu44 10:53 am 07/31/2013

    For those of you who think that the sacrificed considered it an honor: Would you want to be sacrificed if you were told it was an honor? Would you want your children sacrificed?

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  10. 10. Eggnogstic 10:29 am 08/2/2013

    The “informed consent” comment caught my eye too, as did the description of a 13 year old female as being a child, though I do not believe the author is trying to emulate a National Geographic contributor of 100 years ago. The mulling over “informed consent” is unintentionally humorous, as if anyone of any age can reasonably consent to being forcibly killed.

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  11. 11. jgrosay 8:13 am 08/3/2013

    Regarding human sacrifices it seems that it dissapeared in China when imperial authorities told officiants in these ceremonies that they should start choosing the victims for sacrifices among themselves.
    People sent to the stake were given previously alcohol or opium or strangled with a hidden rope just when flames approached or reached the damned, and the Godspel tells that those crucified by romans were given a mixture of wine and other products to obtund them and decrease their sufferings, thus the fact that those sacrificed were given means to reduce the sufferings associated with the sacrificial death indicates some good will or mercy towards the victims of sacrifices from the part of those actually sacrificing them.
    Thi would make more misterious and obscure the authorship or ‘moral responsibility’ of those inducing mankind to sacrifice some of its members, that in some places and in certain times, were selected among those considered the best members of the societies that committed or attempted the crime of sacrificing them.

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