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Hair analysis sheds new light on Inca child sacrifice

29 July 13

Researchers conducted an analysis of hair from the 'Llullaillaco Maiden'

The long and tightly-braided hair of a 13-year old girl, whose frozen body was found near the summit of Volcán Llullaillaco, a mountain on the Chile/Argentina border, is providing University of Bradford researchers with new insights into the Inca capacocha ritual, which sometimes involved child sacrifice.

The team – from Bradford’s Department of Archaeological Sciences – carried out biochemical analysis of the girl’s hair to determine what she was eating and drinking in the months before her death. Their latest findings – published online [today] in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) - show the extent to which drugs and alcohol were used as part of the Inca ritual and in the final months and weeks of her life.

The ‘Llullaillaco Maiden’, named after the mountain where she was found, was buried 500 years ago just below the 6,739m summit. Two other younger children, a 6-year old girl and 7-year old boy were found in separate graves near the Maiden. The children had enough hair to enable the scientists to investigate their final months, as lead researcher Dr Andrew Wilson explains:

“Hair grows around 1cm a month and, once formed, doesn’t undergo any further alterations,” says Dr Wilson. “Substances such as cocaine and alcohol leave markers which can tell us how much the person was consuming when that section of hair was growing. From the Maiden’s hair, we have a two-year timeline running up to her death, showing us some of what she ate and drank.”

The scientists looked for three markers in the hair: two which showed consumption of cocaine from coca leaves and one which showed consumption of coca and alcohol together.

The analyses showed that all three children had ingested both coca and alcohol, with the Maiden – who was found with chewed coca leaves in her mouth – ingesting consistently higher levels than the two younger individuals. The Maiden’s consumption of coca went up sharply twelve months before her death, and then peaked again six months before her death, where her consumption was almost three times higher than earlier levels. The analysis also showed that the Maiden’s alcohol consumption peaked in her final weeks, while consumption for the other two children remained stable throughout.

Dr Wilson has compared the team’s findings with historical accounts produced by the Spanish, dating from the Colonial period, to draw conclusions from the data:“We think it’s likely the Maiden was selected for sacrifice 12 months before her death, after which her treatment changed, corresponding to the sharp increase in coca consumption. She was then probably involved in a series of rituals, involving consumption of coca and alcohol, in the build up to her sacrifice, which kept consumption at a steady level. Both substances were controlled, were considered elite products and held ritual significance for the Inca.

“At the altitude the children were found, death by exposure is inevitable. There was no evidence of physical violence to the children, but the coca and alcohol are likely to have hastened their deaths. The fact that in her final weeks the Maiden shows consistently higher levels of coca and alcohol use compared to the younger children, suggests there was a greater need to sedate her in the final weeks of life.”

The team’s conclusions are confirmed by the position in which the Maiden was found, seated cross-legged, with her head slumped forward and her arms resting loosely on her lap, her headdress intact and the artefacts around her undisturbed. The researchers believe she was placed in the burial chamber whilst heavily sedated, her position carefully arranged and the artefacts placed around her. Re-examination of CT data of her stomach contents by researchers at the University of Copenhagen show that she had eaten a meal just two to seven hours before she died.

“From later Colonial period accounts we have indications that children, often as young as four years old, and ‘acllas’, or chosen women selected around puberty, were donated for sacrifice by their parents and from communities which were under control of the Inca empire,” says Dr Wilson. “One account suggests that this was an honour and that no sadness could be shown when the children were gifted, but the significance of these transactions as a mechanism of social control must have created a climate of fear amongst such communities.”

The paper’s co-author and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, Dr Johan Reinhard, says “With their extraordinary preservation, these children have yielded more information about the past than we could have hoped, thanks to advances in technology. I believe they have much more to tell us and it’s difficult to imagine anything, however rare, that can compare with the uniqueness and complexity of information provided by a frozen mummy."

Image Copyright: Johan Reinhard

29 July 13

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