On March 16, 1999, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard and his team could finally rest for a spell. They had spent three days in heavy snowfall and ferocious winds atop the more than 20,000-foot-high summit of South America’s Mount Llullaillaco, searching for this very site. But they could not have been prepared for what they would eventually uncover: 5 feet beneath the rocks lay what Reinhard has since called “the best-preserved Inca mummies ever found.”
Straddling the border between Argentina and Chile in the Atacama Desert, Llullaillaco is the highest active volcano on Earth. And not only that, but its summit is also home to the most elevated archaeological site in the world. Yet Llullaillaco has arguably become most famous for the remarkable remains that were unearthed near its peak in 1999.
There were, in fact, three mummies found at this Andes mountain range location, with the oldest of the recovered bodies thought to have belonged to a teenaged girl. Nicknamed the Maiden of Llullaillaco, this mummy was so well preserved upon being unearthed that even the hair was viable for testing.
But the Maiden wasn’t the only one to escape the ravages of time: her two tomb-mates were also in excellent condition. And all three sets of remains were so well preserved that the medical experts who had been tasked with studying them were taken aback. In 2017 Reinhard told the Daily Mail, “The doctors have been shaking their heads and saying, ‘They sure don’t look 500 years old but as if they’d died a few weeks ago.’”
And Reinhard himself claimed to have experienced a strange reaction when he’d first laid eyes on the Maiden. Yes, the explorer explained, “A chill went down my spine the first time I saw her hands because they look like those of a person who is alive.”
The mummy’s insides were just as eerie to look at, too, as the organs were totally undamaged, having been kept intact by the freezing conditions. And this icy weather had apparently also worked to keep the deceased girl’s distinctive garb in good repair. The remains were still dressed in a tunic, while a feather headdress was tucked into the mummy’s intricately woven hair. Small tokens also surrounded the figure.
And, ultimately, the two child mummies found alongside the Maiden were each also given their own nicknames: “Llullaillaco Boy” and “Lightning Girl.” The male child was concluded to have been around five years of age at the time of his death, while the female had, it appeared, been four when she passed away. It seems, too, that both had been of a lower social standing than the Maiden.
So how was it discovered that the two children had been inferior in status to the Maiden? Well, analysis of the long-dead teenager’s hair revealed a fascinating distinction that had existed between her and her companions. The DNA study determined, you see, that the Maiden had eaten a distinctly different diet to those of her tomb-mates.
The investigation into the types of food that the three individuals had consumed when they were alive was published in 2013 – though it had actually been completed six years previously. And the research was led by Andrew Wilson of the U.K.’s University of Bradford.
Fascinatingly, Wilson and his researchers found that the two children’s diets in the years before their deaths had actually been equivalent to those of peasants. And, more specifically, the team supposed that the children would have been eating mostly vegetables – especially potatoes.
However – and thanks to the accuracy of the researchers’ testing – the team were also able to see that the eating habits of the younger girl and boy had changed dramatically in the 12 months or so leading up to their deaths. During this period, it seemed, the servants had begun eating luxurious foods such as maize – perhaps even llama.
And, interestingly, these more lavish foodstuffs suggested that the young children had at that time become exposed to the diet of the Inca elite. The Maiden herself, meanwhile, had apparently already been feasting on these special kinds of food for some time, according to the experts.
The hair samples that were taken from the mummies also allowed archaeologists to identify a further fascinating difference between the circumstances of the individuals. Specifically, the scientists deduced, the Maiden had ingested much higher quantities of coca leaves – the source of cocaine – and alcohol than her younger companions.
Such findings thus implied that the Maiden was in fact the most significant figure in the tomb. What’s more, it’s thought that owing to the sheer amount of intoxicating substances in the Maiden’s system, she would have been practically numb to her impending sacrificial death. And the event most certainly was a sacrifice.
One theory has it that the three young people were slaughtered in a rite known as “capacocha” – which can be roughly translated as “royal obligation.” And given that it was apparently rare for Incans to perform this kind of ceremony, it would in fact have been deemed a profound privilege for the Maiden and her younger companions to be dispatched in this way.
Supposedly, the Incans hoped that by sacrificing pure, beautiful children, those young people would exist in utopia with the gods. It was apparently believed, too, that the victims would ultimately act as liaisons between the deities and the community’s holy men. And according to Reinhard, this type of death “was considered a great honor.”
Another line of thinking, though, has proposed that the Maiden’s sacrifice could have been more politically driven. Wilson in particular has theorized that the Maiden was selected as one of the “acllas” – or “chosen ones.” And the lead researcher believes that she then moved in with priestesses in the Incans’ principal city, Cusco, until it was time to travel to the top of Llullaillaco.
In fact, according to a 2013 report by the Daily Express, the Maiden was probably chosen to be sacrificed at the tender age of 12 – although her death wouldn’t come until she became a teenager. And it’s believed that she was selected because of her clear skin and chaste nature.
Then, once the Maiden had been removed from her family home and installed with the priestesses, it’s thought that she enjoyed a life of luxury for the year before her sacrifice. The preteen would have been given the finest garments to wear, for example, and she probably would have dined on exquisite cuisine.
Furthermore, according to Wilson, the Maiden’s coca ingestion had been at its highest half a year prior to her death – a period coinciding, perhaps, with a ritual relating to the imminent sacrifice. And this demonstration would, it’s thought, have been a way for the Incans to boast about the event across their domain.
Yet while the Maiden is not believed to have died a very painful death, unfortunately the same cannot be said for sure about the Llullaillaco Boy. Certainly, blood was found on his head; and his was also the only body to have been bound – signifying that he could have suffocated.
Meanwhile, the Lightning Girl – who received this nickname because the mummy was struck by a bolt from the blue – probably froze to death without suffocation. And this fate is assumed to be similar to the one that befell the Maiden. The teenager may have met her end in a much calmer state of mind, however, owing to her greater consumption of coca and alcohol.
Yet in any case, the discovery of such perfectly preserved mummies was likely a revelation for the researchers. With the find, the investigators were, after all, afforded the rare and extraordinary opportunity to peek half a millennium into the past. And, intriguingly, the scientists were also able to piece together the fascinating – albeit macabre – events that had taken place atop that mountain.
“For me, it’s almost like the children are able to reach out to us to tell us their own stories,” Wilson told National Geographic in 2013. “Hair, especially, is such a personal thing, and here it’s able to provide some compelling evidence and tell us a very personal story – even after five centuries.”
Moreover, as Wilson told Live Science in 2013, “The exciting thing about these individuals is that they probably still have much more to tell us. Locked in their tissues are many stories still to unfold.” And scientists have managed to extricate one of these tales, it seems, through studying the Maiden’s remains in search of ancient ailments.
In particular, the team of experts – headed by Angelique Corthals from the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice – sought to identify any illnesses that the sacrificial victims may have suffered from before their deaths. To do this, the scientists took samples from two of the mummies’ mouths and juxtaposed the corresponding data with results from modern-day individuals.
Corthals’ team’s approach was apparently rather groundbreaking, too. In 2017 she told the Daily Mail, “Our study is the first of its kind, since rather than looking for the pathogen – which is notoriously difficult to do in historical samples – we are looking at the immune system protein profile of the ‘patient.’ [This] more accurately tells us that there was indeed an infection at the time of death.”
And by using this technique, the scientists were able to discover something incredible. It seems that proteins found in the Maiden’s mouth were comparable to those present in people suffering from severe infections in their respiratory systems. So, in an effort to confirm these findings, the team turned to the ancient remains’ DNA in search of more answers.
But would the scientists’ efforts be rewarded? Well, a careful study of the Maiden’s DNA revealed that bacteria that is believed to cause disease was indeed present. The pathogen belongs to the genus Mycobacterium, which comprises close to 200 bacteria – with tuberculosis and leprosy being among their number.
Furthermore, when specialists X-rayed the Maiden’s chest, they discovered indicators of infection in the mummy’s lungs that would have been present around the time that she had passed away. So, it seems that the girl had been afflicted by a condition not dissimilar to tuberculosis at the time of her sacrifice.
Corthals, for one, was seemingly thrilled with the team’s breakthrough. She told the Daily Mail, “Our technique opens a new door to solving some of history’s biggest mysteries, such as the reasons why the flu of 1918 was so devastating. It will also enhance our understanding of our future’s greatest threats, such as the emergence of new infectious agents or re-emergence of known infectious diseases.”
But as it turns out, the fascinating stories of the Maiden and her two tomb-mates are not unique in this region of the planet. Over the course of the 20th century and on into the 21st century, archaeologists have in fact uncovered hundreds of mummified humans in South America. Many of these specimens are millennia old too, and their well-preserved remains have offered us remarkable glimpses into the ancient past.
In 1954, for instance, explorers on the Chilean mountain of Cerro El Plomo uncovered the Plomo Mummy. The story here is that while on its travels, the group came across what appeared to be the frozen remains of a child. And so, the team subsequently alerted Grete Mostny – a well-respected anthropologist – to the find.
This proved to be a fortuitous decision, too, as the Plomo Mummy became the first documented evidence of capacocha. As you’ll recall, capacocha is the same high-altitude Inca human sacrifice to which the Llullaillaco children had been subjected. Yet the remains did not stay on the mountainside for long.
You see, the Plomo Mummy later found a new home at the Chilean National Museum of Natural History – where Mostny worked. And the academic was in fact key to the institution’s purchase of the specimen. But while the remains are still housed in the museum today, they are actually now shielded from the public’s eyes, and a model of the mummy greets visitors instead.
Meanwhile, just over 50 years after the Plomo discovery, another mummified Inca corpse was found on a mountainside – although this time the remains were discovered in southern Peru. In fact, it was the National Geographic Society’s Reinhard who also came upon Mummy Juanita, as it would become known.
Reinhard chanced upon Juanita in September 1995 – four years before he would uncover the Llullaillaco children. And on this occasion, he and his local climbing partner, Miguel Zárate, were traversing the slopes of Mount Ampato. At first, though, the explorers mistook the mummy for a bundle of material that had somehow made its way onto the mountain. Yet after a closer inspection, the climbers realized that they were actually observing ancient human remains.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Juanita Mummy was found to be frozen upon its discovery, making it difficult for Reinhard and Zárate to lift the teenaged girl’s lifeless remains. In fact, when the icy mass was placed on weighing scales in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, it clocked in at more than 90 pounds.
But the deep freeze also meant that the mummy was in excellent condition – with even the specimen’s internal organs and soft tissues still perfectly preserved. As a result, scientists were able to conclude that the girl whose body this had been had digested vegetables a few hours before she’d died.
Reinhard and Zárate had stumbled upon numerous items nearby on the mountainside, too. And it’s likely that these grave goods, which included foodstuffs and figurines, had been intended as offerings to the Inca gods. Further objects had also been enclosed inside the mummy’s colorful burial tapestry – known as an “aksu” – and statuettes sculpted from precious materials, crockery and pins were located around the remains as well.
What’s more, the mummy itself had been adorned with attractive accessories that had remained remarkably well-maintained. A flat hat created from red macaw feathers was perched on top of the head, for instance, while a shawl that had been woven from alpaca wool and fitted with a silver pin covered the shoulders.
In fact, all of the mummy’s garb had been made from expensive fabrics that have been traced to the ancient Inca capital of Cusco. And this – coupled with the fact that the deceased girl appeared to have been healthy before she died – has led experts to ruminate that Juanita had once been part of Cusco’s upper crust.
And as well as examining the remains’ clothing, scientists from The Institute for Genomic Research have also analyzed the mummy’s genetics. In 1996, for instance, experts consulted the institute’s database and estimated that Juanita’s DNA most closely matched that of the Ngäbe people of Panama. Subsequent research, however, revealed that the mummified remains’ genetic composition is in fact more similar to that of Andeans.
Juanita and the assorted grave goods later made their way to Arequipa. There, the mummy was stored in a dedicated cooler at the Catholic University of Santa María’s Museum of Andean Sanctuaries. And while, for the most part, the remains have stayed at the facility since then, curious visitors to the institution have actually been able to see Juanita for themselves.
In 1996 and 1999, though, Juanita did actually leave the country. The first occasion was for a short spell in Washington, D.C., when the mummy was displayed in a custom case at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters. This was followed by a tour of Japan three years later.
Yet although the remains went on to enjoy international fame after the discovery, the circumstances of Juanita’s death had apparently been far from pleasant. You see, a specialist called Elliot Fishman reported that the teenager had in life been murdered by a heavy blow to the cranium.
And this blunt force trauma had in turn induced a large brain hemorrhage. As a result of the blow, the mummy’s skull shows a significant rupture, while the right eye socket is also split. Fishman likened the injuries to those of “someone who has been hit by a baseball bat.”
It’s important to note, though, that there was actually another ancient Chilean civilization that proved itself to be even more prolific than the Incas when it came to mummification: the Chinchorro people. Since 1914, hundreds of mummified Chinchorro corpses have in fact been uncovered – and some of them even predate the more famous Egyptian mummies. You see, whereas the oldest mummy from Egypt dates back to circa 3000 B.C., the earliest artificially preserved Chinchorro body is believed to be over 7,000 years old.
So why do so many Chinchorro mummies exist? Well, unlike the ancient Egyptians and other cultures, the Chinchorro fishing tribe mummified all of their dead – not just a select few. And rather than reserve the most special mummifications for those who had belonged to the highest echelons of society, the Chinchorro people seemed to favor those who had yet to contribute to the wider society. In fact, it was often children who were preserved in the most intricate fashions.
Scientists believe that these ancient people showed no preference regarding gender, either. Take El Morro, for example. This was an archaeological site at the bottom of the steep Morro de Arica hill where close to 100 mummified remains were discovered. There, the split was roughly even between male and female bodies – although experts weren’t able to identify the genders of around 30 sets of remains.
Yet while just under 30 percent of the discovered Chinchorro mummies were simply mummified by nature, the artificial preservation of corpses was a crucial component of Chinchorro culture too. The practice actually reached its zenith in about 3000 B.C. – two thousand years after it had first been introduced – before petering out around 1,200 years later. And the preparations surrounding the process were highly complex.
In all, there were three main variations of Chinchorro mummification: the black mummy technique, the red mummy technique and the mud coat technique. The first is the earliest-known style of preservation, originating in around 5000 B.C. before eventually falling out of favor some two millennia later. And by all accounts, it was quite an arduous process.
You see, embalmers using the black mummy technique would have typically taken off a body’s limbs, head and skin before using hand-crafted tools to remove all traces of flesh from the bones. Then, after the body and bones had been dried out by hot ashes or coals, the remains would have been put back together.
Following this stage, morticians would have often concocted a paste from ash to cover the body and reconstruct the remains’ face before reattaching its skin. The embalmers would also normally have furnished the body’s scalp with a black wig of cropped human hair. It was what happened next, though, that gained the technique its moniker: the Chinchorro people would have decorated the skin all over with a substance called black manganese.
Between 2500 B.C. and 2000 B.C., however, many of these customs had become things of the past. Instead, embalmers would have made numerous small cuts in a corpse’s chest and shoulders to pull out the organs. The head was still commonly separated from the neck, though, so that the embalmer could take out the brain.
Next, the cadaver would have been stuffed with different substances so that it appeared more lifelike. Pieces of wood would have been inserted, too, to make the body seem more robust. Following this, the dismembered head was reattached to the neck and given a long-tasseled wig created from human hair. And the rest of the body would later have been covered with the scarlet ochre that earned the red mummy technique its name.
The last of the three methods – and the rarest – is the mud coat. Practiced from approximately 3000 B.C. to 1300 B.C., this approach was novel in that it didn’t involve the removal of internal organs. Instead, a mortician would have enveloped a body in a layer of claggy mud, sand and fish glue. This potent mix cemented and dried out the remains and prevented the corpse from releasing heady odors. And the mummy would then have been fixed directly into its resting place.
While one other Chinchorro mummification method – known as the bandage technique – also existed, it has only been documented three times. This process seems to have been an amalgamation of the black and red styles. In these cases, then, the bodies – all three of which belonged to children – had been disassembled similarly to the black mummies. The heads, however, had been treated in the red style. And the cadavers had been painted in both colors, too: their trunks and limbs were scarlet, while their faces were tinted black.
But despite all that has been catalogued about the various types of Chinchorro mummification, we still don’t know for sure why these people adopted the process in the first place. And while mummification could have been a means by which to make corpses less unsettling sights, another theory is perhaps more convincing.
Many believe, you see, that the Chinchorro culture involved the worship of dead ancestors. For instance, there is evidence that the tribe sometimes displayed mummified bodies in prominent positions during important rituals. All in all, then, this is yet another fascinating insight into the macabre and mysterious world of ancient South American mummies.