Final Moments of Incan Child Mummies' Lives Revealed

one of three Incan child mummies called the Maiden
Three Incan mummies sacrificed 500 years ago were regularly given drugs and alcohol before their death, particularly the eldest child called the Maiden (shown here), to make them more compliant, researchers have found. (Image credit: copyright Johan Reinhard)

Three Incan children who were sacrificed 500 years ago were regularly given drugs and alcohol in their final months to make them more compliant in the ritual that ultimately killed them, new research suggests.

Archaeologists analyzed hair samples from the frozen mummies of the three children, who were discovered in 1999, entombed within a shrine near the 22,100-foot (6,739 meters) summit of the Argentinian volcano Llullaillaco. The samples revealed that all three children consistently consumed coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived) and alcoholic beverages, but the oldest child, the famed "Maiden," ingested markedly more of the substances. Coca was a highly controlled substance during the height of the Inca Empire, when the children were sacrificed.

The evidence, combined with other archaeological and radiological data, suggests that the Maiden was treated very differently from the other two children, Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl (so named by researchers because the mummy appears to have been struck by lightning). After being selected for the deadly rite, the Maiden likely underwent a type of status change, becoming an important figure to the empire; the other two children may have served as her attendants. [See Photos of the Incan Child Mummies]

"[The Maiden] became somebody other than who she was before," said study lead author Andrew Wilson, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the U.K. "Her sacrifice was seen as an honor."

Hair analyses

To learn about the final moments of a mummy's life, scientists will sometimes turn to hair samples, which provide a record of what substances were circulating in the blood when new hair cells formed. And because hair grows at a relatively constant rate, it can provide a kind of timeline of what a person has consumed (the length of the timeline depends on the length of hair available).

In a 2007 study, Wilson and his colleagues analyzed the child mummies' hair to understand how their diets changed over time. They found that the children came from a peasant background, as their diet consisted mainly of common vegetables, potatoes in particular. But in the year leading up to their deaths, they ate "elite" food, including maize and dried llama meat, and appeared to have been fattened up in preparation for the sacrifice.

Additionally, the 13-year-old Maiden consumed more of the elite food than the Llullaillaco Boy and Lightning Girl, who were both 4 to 5 years old, Wilson noted. (The three children were previously believed to be about two years older than these estimates, but a new analysis of CT scans suggests otherwise.)

In the new study, the scientists analyzed the mummies' hair for cocaine (a major alkaloid of coca leaves) and its metabolite benzoylecgonine, as well as cocaethylene, which forms when both cocaine and ethanol are present in the blood. The scientists created a timeline of coca and alcohol consumption for the children — due to respective hair lengths, the chronology for the younger children only went back to about nine months before their deaths, whereas the Maiden's timeline spanned about 21 months before death.

The team found that the younger children ingested coca and alcohol at a steady rate, but the Maiden consumed significantly more coca in her final year, with peak consumption occurring at approximately six months before her death. Her alcohol consumption peaked within her last few weeks of life. [Images: Chilean Mummies Hold Nicotine Secret]

The increase in drug and alcohol ingestion likely made the Maiden more at ease with her impending death, Wilson said, adding that she was discovered with a sizeable coca quid (lump for chewing) in between her teeth, suggesting she was sedated when she died.

The researchers also discovered a sizeable coca quid (lump for chewing) in between the teeth of the Maiden Incan mummy, suggesting the child was sedated when she died some 500 years ago. (Image credit: Johan Reinhard)

The chosen one

The children's burial conditions provide further insight into their final moments. The Maiden sat cross-legged and slightly forward, in a fairly relaxed body position at the time of her death. She also had a feathered headdress on her head, elaborately braided hair and a number of artifacts placed on a textile that was draped over her knees.

Furthermore, scans showed the Maiden had food in her system and that she had not recently defecated. "To my mind, that suggests she was not in a state of distress at the point at which she died," Wilson said. It's not clear how the Maiden died, but she may have succumbed to thefreezing temperatures of theenvironment and was placed in her final position while she was still alive or very shortly after death, he said.

By contrast, the Llullaillaco Boy had blood on his cloak, a nit infestation in his hair and a cloth binding his body, suggesting he may have died of suffocation. The Lightning Girl didn't appear to be treated as roughly as the boy, though she didn't receive the same care as the Maiden — she lacked, for example, the Maiden's decorated headdress and braids.

"The Maiden was perhaps a chosen woman selected to live apart from her former life, among the elite and under the care of the priestesses," Wilson said.

Evidence suggests the imperial rite may have been used as a form of social control. Being selected for the ritual was supposed to be seen as a great honor, but it likely produced a climate of fear. In fact, it was a major offense for parents to show any sadness after giving up their children for the ceremony. More work on the three mummies will reveal more about the Inca society and its practice of ritual sacrifice.

"The exciting thing about these individuals is that they probably still have much more to tell us," Wilson said. "Locked in their tissues are many stories still to unfold."

The work was detailed today (July 29) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Joseph Castro
Live Science Contributor
Joseph Bennington-Castro is a Hawaii-based contributing writer for Live Science and He holds a master's degree in science journalism from New York University, and a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Hawaii. His work covers all areas of science, from the quirky mating behaviors of different animals, to the drug and alcohol habits of ancient cultures, to new advances in solar cell technology. On a more personal note, Joseph has had a near-obsession with video games for as long as he can remember, and is probably playing a game at this very moment.