The breathtaking heights of Peru’s Andean peaks hold a dark secret: the perfectly preserved remains of ancient children sacrificed by the Incan Empire to their mountain god. One of these children, nicknamed “Juanita,” was discovered on Mount Ampato in 1995, and many more have been unearthed high in the mountains.
Today you can visit two ice mummies, Juanita and Sarita, at the Museo Santuarios Andinos in Arequipa, Peru. Since the bodies are in such delicate condition, Juanita is on display for half of the year and Sarita for the other half.
The Museo Santuarios Andinos explores the controversial practice of human sacrifice and explains why these ancient people felt compelled to use their precious children as tributes to the gods. You’ll also have the chance to come face to face with Juanita or Sarita, an experience that I found both moving and intensely somber.
The museum offers a glimpse into the Inca civilization’s darkest ritual, as well as fascinating facts about the history of human sacrifice in the region.
Here are seven fast facts about the mummies.
1. Capacocha Was Used To Appease The Gods
Like many ancient people, the Inca used human sacrifice, called capacocha, as a method of appeasing their gods. Capacocha was performed on the dizzying heights of the Andean peaks as a way of bridging the earthly world and the spiritual one. It was considered one of the most sacred practices of the Inca and only performed using cherished tributes, like valuable treasures and high-born children.
2. Tribute Children Were Taken To The Capital Of Cuzco
Cuzco means “navel” in Quechua, and the city was the epicenter of the Incan Empire. Child sacrifices were brought to Cuzco to be prepared for the sacred ritual of capacocha. The Incan Empire encompassed several modern-day countries, and some tributes came from as far away as Ecuador and Chile. In Cuzco, the children attended numerous celebrations before meeting their fate at the top of one of the nearby frigid peaks.
3. There Were Celebratory Feasts Beforehand
As strange as it might seem today, the Inca regarded capacocha as both a sacred and celebratory time. The children were treated to generous feasts designed to prepare them for their trip up the mountain and their eventual meeting with the gods. The Inca considered it an honor to be selected as a tribute.
4. Tributes Were Only Sacrificed When Horrible Things Happened
The Inca did not take capacocha lightly, viewing the sacrifice of tributes as something that was only appropriate when terrible things befell the empire. Weather-related disasters like volcanoes or earthquakes often prompted a gift to the gods, as did earthly catastrophes like the death of a ruler.
5. The Tributes Were Always Drugged
It seems like the Inca tried to minimize the suffering of tributes by drugging them with chicha -- a potent corn alcohol -- and coca leaves. It’s also likely that the children were disoriented by the effects of altitude sickness. Since many of the tributes were entombed at the tops of the mountains, it’s possible that they were plied with ceremonial drugs to attempt to ease their transition from this world to the next.
6. The Sacrificed Children Were Elevated Above All Mortals
The tributes were seen as a link between the mortal world and the kingdom of deities, so they were elevated both in life and in death. Although the ritual of capacocha is grisly and upsetting to us, it’s clear that the Inca felt it was a high honor to be selected as a tribute.
7. Hundreds Of Mummies Might Still Be Concealed In The Andes
The Incan Empire spanned centuries, so although child sacrifice was rare, it’s possible that there could be hundreds of unearthed bodies in the Andean range. Since the highest peaks are very difficult to get to, we might never discover how many Inca children were victims of capacocha.
Although it was difficult learning about this aspect of ancient culture, paying my respects to Juanita was moving beyond words.
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