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The Sacrificial Ceremony

"Beautiful beyond exaggeration," is how one Spanish chronicler described Tanta Carhua. Carhua was a 10-year old Inca child whose father offered her to the Inca Emperor as a Capacocha sacrifice. She was taken by priests to Cuzco where she met the Inca Emperor, and on her return journey to the mountain where she would be sacrificed the procession passed through her home village. According to the legends, Tanta Carhua told the village: "You can finish with me now because I could not be more honoured than by the feasts which they celebrated for me in Cuzco."

ByLiesl ClarkNova

Tanta Carhua was then taken to a high Andean mountain, placed in a shaft-tomb and walled in alive. Chicha, a maize alcohol, was fed to her both before and after her death. And in death, this beautiful ten-year old child became a goddess, speaking to her people as an oracle from the mountain, which was reconsecrated in her name.

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Inca mummy child
Very little is known about Capacocha, the sacred Inca ceremony of human sacrifice, but with each new archaeological discovery of a sacrificial mummy, more is revealed.
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© WGBH Educational Foundation

Accounts of Capacocha

The earliest and only known written accounts of the ritual are chronicles written by Spanish conquistador historians. From the chronicles and from each new discovery of a mummy, the pieces of this great puzzle are put together to reveal an intricate and extremely important ritual that involved sacrifice of children, worship of mountains as gods, and elaborate burial procedures.

Sacrifices were often made during or after a portentous event: an earthquake, an epidemic, a drought, or after the death of an Inca Emperor. According to archaeologist Juan Schobinger, "Inca sacrifices often involved the child of a chief. The sacrificed child was thought of as a deity, ensuring a tie between the chief and the Inca emperor, who was considered a descendant of the Sun god. The sacrifice also bestowed an elevated status on the chief's family and descendants." The honour of sacrifice was bestowed not only on the family, but was forever immortalized in the child. It is believed that the sacrificial children had to be perfect, without so much as a blemish or irregularity in their physical beauty.

This was the ultimate sacrifice the Inca could make to please the mountain gods: to offer up their own children

After a child was chosen or offered to the emperor, a procession would begin from the child's home village to Cuzco, the crown seat of the Inca empire. Priests, family members, and chiefs would accompany the child on this great journey to meet the emperor. Huge ceremonial feasts would take place in Cuzco where the child would meet the emperor and forever bring credit to the family in this important event. Priests would then lead the grand procession to the designated high mountain. Often, a base camp would be established lower on the mountain, at a more comfortable elevation. Here, llamas (which carried up 80-pound loads of soil, grass, and often stones for the camp structures from the villages below) would be coralled, and permanent stone structures would be built to offer shelter to the priests and the child. Meanwhile, high on the mountain's summit, the sacrificial platforms would be under construction and the burial site being prepared. The platforms were large retaining walls built of stone that formed a large tomb-like interior. The child would be placed within the platform along with many burial artifacts, like carvings of llamas, statues made of gold and silver, and ceremonial pots.

human figurine with feathers
Human figurines, like this one with an elaborate feather headdress, accompanied the sacrificial children in their mountain tombs. They were likely intended as companions for the children in the afterlife.
© WGBH Educational Foundation

A violent death?

On the day of the sacrifice, the child would be fed chicha, a maize alcohol, presumably to ease the pain of the cold, the altitude, and perhaps the fear of dying. Much ritual celebrating would take place at the platform as the child would be wrapped in ceremonial clothing, placed inside the tomb, and surrounded with the sacred artifacts that would accompany him/her into the Other World. This was the ultimate sacrifice the Inca could make to please the mountain gods: to offer up their own children in the highest places humans could possibly reach.

Whether the children died a violent death remains a debate among scientists. Skull fractures have been found on most of the sacrificial mummies. Johan Reinhard, the high-altitude archeologist who discovered the famous mummy known as "Juanita," says that she indeed has a skull fracture on the back of her head. He speculates, however, that this was a quick and painless means of knocking the children out so that they wouldn't have to suffer a long and grueling death of exposure to the elements. He believes the children were knocked out with a blow to a cushioning towel on the backs of their heads.

Inca mummy Juanita
The mummy Juanita was likely between 11 and 15 years old when she died on the peaks of Mount Ampato roughly 500 years ago.
Courtesy The Mountain Institute

Once the child died of exposure, the priests would continue to return to the site, making offerings of coca leaves and filling in the burial site with dirt. Often a miniature figurine of the child would be placed on the surface near the burial site, along with more simple offerings like ichu, wild grass from the slopes thousands of feet below. For archeologists Jose Antonio Chavez and Johan Reinhard, these are often the first clues they look for in their search for sacrificial Inca children buried on the frozen mountain tops of the Andes.

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.