Final Moments of Incan Child Mummies' Lives Revealed

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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.
Copyright Johan Reinhard

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.

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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 the freezing temperatures of the environment 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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