(Photo: Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana)
SALTA, Argentina – The maiden, the boy, the girl of lightning: they were three Inca children, entombed on a bleak and frigid mountaintop 500 years ago as a religious sacrifice.
Unearthed in 1999 from the 22,000-foot summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a volcano 300 miles west of here near the Chilean border, their frozen bodies were among the best preserved mummies ever found, with internal organs intact, blood still present in the heart and lungs, and skin and facial features mostly unscathed. No special effort had been made to preserve them. The cold and the dry, thin air did all the work. They froze to death as they slept, and 500 years later still looked like sleeping children, not mummies.
In the eight years since their discovery, the mummies, known here simply as Los Niños or “the children,” have been photographed, X-rayed, CT scanned and biopsied for DNA. The cloth, pottery and figurines buried with them have been meticulously thawed and preserved. But the bodies themselves were kept in freezers and never shown to the public — until last week, when La Doncella, the maiden, a 15-year-old girl, was exhibited for the first time, at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which was created in Salta expressly to display them.
The two other mummies have not yet been shown, but will be put on display within the next six months or so.
The children were sacrificed as part of a religious ritual, known as capacocha. They walked hundreds of miles to and from ceremonies in Cuzco and were then taken to the summit of Llullaillaco (yoo-yeye-YAH-co), given chicha (maize beer), and, once they were asleep, placed in underground niches, where they froze to death. Only beautiful, healthy, physically perfect children were sacrificed, and it was an honor to be chosen. According to Inca beliefs, the children did not die, but joined their ancestors and watched over their villages from the mountaintops like angels.
…[I]t took an enormous amount of research to figure out how to show them yet still make sure they did not deteriorate.
The solution turned out to be a case within a case — an acrylic cylinder inside a box made of triple-paned glass. A computerized climate control system replicates mountaintop conditions inside the case — low oxygen, humidity and pressure, and a temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In part because Salta is in an earthquake zone, the museum has three backup generators and freezers, in case of power failures or equipment breakdowns, and the provincial governor’s airplane will fly the mummies out in an emergency, Dr. Miremont said.
Asked where they would be taken, he replied, “Anywhere we can plug them in.”
Wow. Be sure to check out the slideshow, unless you’re squeamish – the girl who was hit by lightning is pretty… alarming.
September 11th, 2007 at 11:22pm Posted by EliEntry Filed under: Science