Inca Maiden: Expert on discovery of mummy that felt 'so alive'
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The Andes mountains in South America are ancient, around 50 million years old. They came into existence when the South American and Pacific tectonic plates collided, creating a collection of mountain chains that span seven countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. A number of civilisations have called these mountains home for millennia, peoples like the Atacama, the Uru, the Digauita and the Quechua.
Still more have populated the perilous peaks, like the Inca, the advanced community that rose from the Peruvian highlands in the early 13th century.
Traces of these peoples in the mountains have largely disappeared. But a team of researchers once climbed Argentina’s portion of the Andes before scaling the world’s tallest active volcano, finding this to be untrue.
It was just past the peak that they stumbled across the near-perfectly preserved remains of a 13-year-old girl, tightly wrapped in a blanket.
She was accompanied by a girl and a boy, though much younger, around four and five years old: the trio appeared as if they had been frozen just the day before.
But that was not the case, as when the remains were taken away for analysis, the results showed that the group were in fact around 500 years old, placing them as part of the Inca.
While they were buried under 1.5 metres — five feet — of rock and earth, the trio’s internal organs appeared perfectly intact on a CT scan, something more ordinarily found with the recently deceased.
Archaeologist Dr Johan Reinhard, a part of the research team, described the remains as “the best preserved of any mummy I’ve seen”.
Talking about the perilous journey and subsequent excavation during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Mummies Alive: The Inca Maiden’, he said on reaching the summit of Mount Llullaillaco, he heard someone cry out: “Mummy!”
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He continued: “When she first came out of the ground, she was completely wrapped up. We couldn’t see any part of her body, but the textiles were just outstanding, and they were so well preserved.”
Dr Reinhard gently began to unwrap the mummy from the top of her body down. He explained: “We had to talk while we were doing it — it was if we were afraid at some level we might wake this mummy up because she seemed so alive.
“But nothing had the impact of when we uncovered her hands — it was probably one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my life, because those hands were perfect.”
Later dubbed ‘The Maiden’, the girl’s condition stunned researchers, her hands, for example, appeared to be exactly the same as those of someone living, her nails and skin creases all seeming to be fresh.
She had been buried with a heap of ancient artefacts, things like ceramic figures and textiles.
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Everything was “totally untouched”, with colours in the textiles still vibrant, the relics unscathed by time.
Since the initial discovery in 1995, the Maiden’s life story has taken a sinister turn.
In 2013, researchers studying her remains found that drugs and alcohol played a part in both of the girls’ demise, with tests indicating that she had been heavily sedated in the run-up to her death.
Dr Emma Brown, from the department of archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford, said: “The Spanish chroniclers suggest that children were sacrificed for all kinds of reasons: important life milestones in the lives of the Incas, in times of war or natural disasters, but there was a calendar of rituals too.”
Using forensic analysis, the international team of researchers found that all three had consumed coca leaves in the final months of their lives.
Historical accounts suggest the leaves, today used to make cocaine, were reserved for the elite of Inca society and usually used in ritual ceremonies.
Tests carried out on the Maiden’s hair found that she had consumed far more coca than the younger pair, and spiked in the year before her death.
The team believed this sharp increase corresponds to the time she was selected for sacrifice.
Dr Brown told the BBC: “From what we know of the Spanish chronicles, particularly attractive or gifted women were chosen.
“The Incas actually had someone who went out to find these young women and they were taken from their families.”
Her diet in the year before her death was also found to have changed drastically, from being almost entirely based on potato to one rich in meat and maize.
Further tests also suggested she had been plied with heavy amount of alcohol in the last few weeks of her life, suggesting she was sedated before being taken to the volcano.
There was, however, no sign of violence having been inflicted upon her or the younger children.
Dr Brown added: “In this case we think with the combination of being placed in the grave with the alcohol and the cold ‒ the mountain is over 6,000m above sea level ‒ she would have passed away quietly.”
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