Preserved for 500 years, the Llullaillaco mummies show what Inca child sacrifice involved


In 1999, three 500-year-old mummies were discovered near the peak of the Llullaillaco Volcano on the Chile-Argentina border. They were children. The oldest, known as the Ice Maiden, was only 13 years old; experts estimated the other two, a boy and a girl, were four or five years old.

The Llullaillaco mummies represent an exciting find for the scientific community, shedding light on the ancient practice of Incan sacrifice. It is likely all three died in a ritual called Capacocha, in which they were sacrificed to the Sun God. Their bodies were shockingly well-preserved; the freezing, thin air in the high mountains turned them into frozen mummies naturally. They looked like they simply fell asleep.

The three mummies – the Maiden, the Llullaillaco Boy, and the Lightning Girl (earning this moniker since she appears lightning-struck) – are all on display in Salta, Argentina. They continue providing researchers with clues to the fascinating and tragic lives they led in the ancient Incan Empire.

The Mountaintop Conditions Were Perfect For Preserving The Children’s Bodies

The three children evidently froze in their sleep just shy of the 22,000-foot peak of Mount Llullaillaco. Unlike other mummies from around the world, there were no substances, natural or man-made, used to preserve the bodies. The climate alone – freezing temperatures and extremely dry, thin air – kept the tissues intact. Their bodies were essentially frozen.

The children are among the most well-preserved mummies in the world. The bodies’ hair, skin, facial features, blood, and internal organs are all still intact, providing researchers with a goldmine of clues about the lives of Incan sacrifices.

All Three Children Showed Signs Of Drug And Alcohol Use

Experts theorize the children, specifically the older girl, spent their final year living in Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Incan Empire. She devoted her last year preparing for her trip for her trip to the mountain by “weaving textiles and brewing chicha.”

Common in Incan culture were chicha, a corn-based beer, as well as the coca leaf, from which cocaine is a byproduct. Both, however, were controlled substances and not available for the general population. Tests of the children’s hair showed in the year before their deaths, their consumption of chicha and coca increased significantly.

Experts believe the beer and drugs were either part of the festivals they took part in, or used to sedate the children to keep them calm during the sacrifice. Researchers also found a coca packet in the girl’s mouth, which may have helped soothe her in her icy tomb.


The uncovered 13-year-old Ice Maiden’s long, intricately braided hair gave researchers valuable clues. Hair essentially acts as a record of what is going on in a person’s life. Since it grows consistently at about one centimeter per month, the scientists studying the Llullaillaco mummies could assemble a timeline of the children’s final year of life.

An analysis of the hair revealed what the children ate, with their diets changing to include higher-end foods like meat and maize (corn). It also disclosed their usage of chicha (corn-based beer) and coca had increased, spiking at several points throughout the year. This supposedly correlated with their attendance at festivals leading up to their sacrifice, as well as the preparation for their deaths.

Studies of the three Llullaillaco mummies showed the children were not related to each other, but may have had similar beginnings in life. Some sources claim all three children came from modest backgrounds, and became elevated to “elite status” through their sacrifice for the empire.

Other sources, however, theorize the two younger children were already on a higher social level than the older girl, and were possibly even royals. Their elongated skulls suggest their upper-class status, as they likely formed through deliberate head-wrapping.

Whatever start the two younger children had in life, their role in death was seemingly to serve as attendants for the older girl. Although all three gave their lives in the Capacocha ceremony, only the older girl received noticeable special treatment before death. She was also the sole child with elaborate braids, while the boy had an infestation of nits in his hair.


The burial site of the Llullaillaco mummies was a peaceful one. The sacred objects surrounding the mummies remained undisturbed, and the children looked as if they had drifted off to sleep. The younger girl became known as the Lightning Girl because lightning partially burned her body long after her death, but she most likely went to sleep quietly in the freezing tomb. However, the Llullaillaco Boy might have struggled, especially since a small amount of blood was on his clothing.

Not all Capacocha sacrifice sites are as peaceful, with many showing signs of violence. According to forensic and archeological expert Andrew Wilson, “Either they got it right, in terms of perfecting the mechanisms of performing this type of sacrifice, or these children went much more quietly.”


The Children Looked Like They Were Sleeping, Unnerving Researchers

When scientists work with mummies, they are usually working with bones, dried tissue, and features no longer resembling human faces. However, with the Llullaillaco mummies, researchers worked with bodies appearing as if they’re still alive. In an interview with the New York Times, the director of the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, Dr. Gabriel Miremont, said working with the three children felt “almost more like a kidnapping than archeological work.”

Archeological expert Andrew Wilson also reflected on the startlingly well-preserved bodies in a 2013 interview:

I suppose that’s what makes this all the more chilling. This isn’t a desiccated mummy or a set of bones. This is a person; this is a child. And this data that we’ve generated in our studies is really pointing to some poignant messages about her final months and years.

It May Have Been An Honor Among The Inca To Be Selected For Sacrifice

Studies of the three mummies suggest the children may have lived average lives within the Incan Empire up until the elders selected them to receive an elevated status through religious sacrifice. Although the modern mindset regards the death of a child as a tragedy, the ancient Incas felt honored if their child was one of the few chosen to serve as a sacrifice – or allegedly, at least.

Some experts believe the sacrifices served a religious purpose, and acted as a form of psychological control. It was highly offensive if parents displayed any signs of sorrow after the selection of their children.


In The Incan Religion, The Andes Mountains Were Sacred

Although the mountain environment was ideal for preserving human bodies, the Incas had a different rationale for using the peaks of the Andes as their sacrificial sites. For them, the mountains were an incredibly sacred place – their religion revolved around the Sun God, Inti, and the peaks were the closest they could get to the sky.

The Incas braved intense and dangerous weather conditions at high altitudes to place their human sacrifices, who were then reputed to be angelic beings watching over the empire, guaranteeing safety and prosperity across the empire.


The Child Sacrifices May Have Been Displays Of Power For The Ruling Class

The Incan Empire’s center was in Cusco, Peru, but by the time of the children’s sacrifice, it expanded up and down the west coast of South America. The children would have stopped at many festivals throughout the empire before their sacrifice took place at the Llullaillaco Volcano. The volcano is on the border of modern-day Chile and Argentina, one of the most southern parts of the Incan Empire.

Some experts believe around this time, as the borders expanded, the rulers of the empire wanted to send a message. The child sacrifices contributed to a “climate of fear” as demonstrations of the Incan Empire’s power.

These Three Children Were Not The Only Ones Frozen In The Mountains

They represent one of the best-preserved archeological finds in the world, but the Ice Maiden, the Lightning Girl, and the Llullaillaco Boy were hardly alone up on the peaks of the Andes.

Over 100 other graves or sacrifice sites existed within the Incan Empire, with mummies in various states of preservation. One mummy called “Juanita” was discovered in 1995, and another known as the “Reina del Cerro” (Queen of the Hill) spent decades circulating among private collectors after its initial discovery in the 1920s.

These mummies reside alongside the three Llullaillaco children in the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, Argentina.

Since Earthquakes Are Common In The Region, There Are Several Back-Up Plans To Keep The Mummies Safe

South America is prone to severe earthquakes, which makes the storage of highly sensitive mummies tricky. Stored in climate-controlled environments, the mummies could quickly deteriorate if the facility loses power.

The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology took multiple steps to prevent the mummies’ cases from succumbing to power loss. The museum has not one, but three backup generators. In the case of a more urgent emergency, the governor’s plane is on call to take the mummies anywhere with a reliable source of power.

The Exhibit Containing The Mummies Takes Both Practicality And Sensitivity Into Account

Today, the three mummies stay in the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology), located in Salta, Argentina. Their displays took a considerable amount of preparation, especially since the mummies are so fragile and valuable to both scientists and the local culture. The museum chose an exhibit which considers the physical needs of the mummies, as well as the respect they believe these sacred remains deserve.

The bodies’ displays (often just the 13-year-old girl’s, while the other two remain in storage) are tube-like enclosures, which are highly temperature-controlled. Since many people are distressed by the sight of dead bodies, the curators designed the exhibit to present in complete darkness – until someone wants to see the body and turns on the light.

From its beginnings, the exhibit has been respectful toward the Incan culture. The museum’s director, Dr. Gabriel Miremont, explained in an interview they opened the exhibit quietly for a reason – the bodies were once real people, and though it was an exciting moment for scientists, it was not “a situation for a party.”

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