(Above: The 15-year-old “Llullaillaco Maiden” was sacrificed along with two other children on top of Mt. Llullaillco, in northern Argentina, at 22,000 feet)
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.
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.
One of the children, a 6-year-old girl, had been struck by lightning sometime after she died, resulting in burns on her face, upper body and clothing. She and the boy, who was 7, had slightly elongated skulls, created deliberately by head wrappings — a sign of high social status, possibly even royalty.