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Ice Mummies of the Inca

The first frozen high mountain Inca human sacrifice was found atop a peak in Chile in 1954. More recently, additional discoveries, including the remarkably preserved "Juanita" and the huddled body of a small boy, have shed light on this controversial Inca ritual.

ByLiesl ClarkNova

Mummy 3

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Children sacrificed to the mountain gods are now revealing details of an ancient Inca practice.
Courtesy Chris Openshaw

High Sacrifice

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He has delicate fingers and hugs his knees, one foot over the other, as if to keep warm. His hair is plaited in more than 200 braids, and miniature idols and keepsakes accompany him in his frozen tomb. Dead for 500 years, this Inca sacrificial mummy found on Chile's El Plomo Peak has opened the door to further inquiry into the strange and mysterious ritual life of the Inca.

There may be hundreds of Inca children, sacrificed in Inca times nearly 500 years ago, entombed in graves of ice atop the western hemisphere's highest peaks. To date, over 115 sacred Inca ceremonial sites have been excavated at an elevation over 15,000 feet on some 30 Andean peaks. These high mountain sanctuaries dot the Andes from central Chile to southern Peru. All of the sites are located in the region of the two southernmost Inca quarters, or "suyus," but only a few of these remote and icy summits have yielded finds of much archeological value. The discovery by Johan Reinhard of "Juanita," an Inca ice maiden found atop Mount Ampato in 1995, is the most recent—and some say the most revealing—addition to scientists' understanding of Inca life and culture.

Andes Mountain
The mountains we know of today as the Andes had sacred identities for the Inca.
Courtesy Micheal Barnes

Mountain Worship

The Incas worshipped the high peaks that pierce the South American skies. These rugged summits represented a means of approaching the Sun God, Inti, the center of their religion, and many sacrifices were made atop these cold and unpredictable pinnacles. Mountain deities were seen as lords of the forces of nature who presided over crops and livestock. In essence they were the protectors of the Inca people, the keepers of life who reached up toward the skies where the sacred condor soared.

It took incredible effort to hold sacrificial rituals in the thin air and life-threatening cold of the high Andes.

Many theories exist about why the Incas performed ritual ceremonies, which sometimes included human sacrifices, at elevations approaching 23,000 feet. Most scholars agree that the purpose of the sacrifice, known as "capacocha," was to appease the mountain gods and to assure rain, abundant crops, protection, and order for the Inca people. Sacrifices often coincided with remarkable occasions: earthquakes, eclipses, droughts. On these occasions the Incas were required to offer valuables from the highest regions they could reach—the ice-clad summits of Andean peaks. Truly auspicious events, such as the death of an emperor, prompted human sacrifices, perhaps to provide an escort for the emperor on his journey to the Other World.

The frigid and dry mountain air kept the microbes that normally decay corpses at bay, preserving soft tissues like skin and hair.
Courtesy Chris Openshaw

The fact that many high elevation sacrificial sites are located near trans-mountain roads suggests that sacrifices were also made in conjunction with the expansion of the Inca civilization itself. The extensive roads in the southernmost regions were integral to the expansion of the empire southward. Especially important were the trans-mountain, or east-west, roads, which linked north-south running ranges and valleys over high-mountain passes. Near such routes, the Incas chose high peaks, climbed them, built their platforms, and made sacrifices, sometimes human, to assure safe continued passage and to bless the roads. The mummy of a young boy on Mount Aconcagua, discovered in 1985, could be one such sacrifice. His tomb is near one of the most important trans-mountain paths which today is virtually the same route as the major international highway linking Argentina and Chile.

Remarkable Discoveries

The first frozen high mountain Inca human sacrifice was found atop a peak in Chile in 1954. "La Momia del Cerro El Plomo," the Mummy of El Plomo Peak became its name, and until Juanita, it was heralded as the best preserved. Scientists were able to establish many of the El Plomo mummy's vital statistics: he was male, 8 or 9 years old, type O blood, and presumably from a wealthy family due to his portly physique.

A unique set of circumstances made the discovery of Juanita possible. The eruption of a nearby volcano, Mt. Sabancaya, produced hot ash, which slowly melted away the 500 years of accumulated ice and snow encasing the mummy. A brightly-colored burial tapestry, or "aksu" was revealed, the fresh hues remarkably preserved. Since the heavy winter storms had not yet covered the body, Dr. Reinhard was able to recover the mummy.

These sacrificial burial sites have preserved the Inca past more vividly than any other discovery

The fact that ice preserved the body makes Juanita a substantial scientific find. All other high-altitude Inca mummies have been completely desiccated—freeze-dried in a way—much like mummies found elsewhere in the world. Juanita, however, is almost entirely frozen, preserving her skin, internal organs, hair, blood, even the contents of her stomach. This offers scientists a rare glimpse into the life of these pre-Columbian people. DNA makeup can be studied, revealing where Juanita came from, perhaps even linking her to her living relatives. Stomach contents can be analyzed to reveal more about the Inca diet. Juanita is the closest sacrifice to Cuzco, the Inca capital. This, in addition to the fact that the clothing she was wearing resembles the finest textiles from that great city, suggests she may have come from a noble Cuzco family. The almost perfectly preserved clothing offer a storehouse of information, giving insight into sacred Inca textiles, as well as how the Inca nobility dressed.

It took incredible effort to hold sacrificial rituals in the thin air and life-threatening cold of the high Andes. At 20,000 feet, near the summit of Mt. Ampato where Juanita was found, Johan Reinhard discovered extensive camps or "rest stops" on the route to the ritual site at the summit. Evidence of Inca camp sites atop Ampato include remains of wooden posts for large, blanket-covered tents, stones used for tent platform floors, and an abundance of dried grass used for walkways and to insulate tent floors. These are heavy materials that must have been hauled many miles up the barren mountainside. The trek itself to the sacrificial site was a remarkable undertaking, involving whole entourages of priests and villagers, provisions, water, as well as symbolic items used in the ritual, all carried on the backs of hundreds of llamas and porters.

Mummy 2
Johan Reinhard's climbing partner, Miguel Zí¡rate, on the slopes of Mt. Ampato
Courtesy The Mountain Institute

A Mummy Pair

A month after Reinhard's amazing discovery of Juanita, he returned to Ampato with a full archaeological team to explore Ampato further. This time, several thousand feet below the summit, they found two more mummy children, a girl and a boy. It is believed these may have been companion sacrifices to the more important sacrifice of Juanita on Ampato's summit. These children may have also been buried as a pair in a symbolic marriage. A Spanish soldier who witnessed such sacrifices wrote in 1551: "Many boys and girls were sacrificed in pairs, being buried alive and well dressed and adorned....items that a married Indian would possess." Buried with them were cloth-covered offering bundles, nearly 40 pieces of pottery, decorated wooden utensils, weaving tools, and even a pair of delicately woven sandals. At an elevation equal to that of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, these sacrificial burial sites have preserved the Inca past more vividly than any other discovery, adding a deeper understanding of one of the world's great civilizations.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Ice Mummies.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.