500-year-old mummies found in Andes
Three sacrificial victims believed 'best-preserved' Incans ever foundThe Washington Post
WASHINGTON -Archaeologists have unearthed the frozen remains of two girls and a boy at the top of a cloud-swept volcano in the Andes, where Incan priests sacrificed them to the gods five centuries ago.
The mummies are in such good condition that the organs are intact and, in at least one case, it appears that frozen blood still fills the heart.
The 500-year-old children "appear to be the best-preserved Inca mummies ever found" and are in better condition than most, if not all, mummies from any period, according to Johan Reinhard, coleader of the American-Argentine-Peruvian team that made the discovery, which was announced Tuesday. "The arms looked perfect, even down to visible hairs," he said.
Studies of the preserved body tissue, organs and fluids, using modern DNA techniques and other recent advances, could greatly increase the understanding of a civilization that had no written language, specialists said.
If there is blood frozen in the organs, scientists might learn, for example, whether the children came from the same family, as well as glean valuable insights into what diseases, parasites and viruses they carried and what foods they ate.
The children were clothed, and the site, found March 16, harbored an unusually rich collection of undisturbed Incan treasures laid out presumably to appease the mountain gods. The trove included about three dozen gold, silver and shell statues, half of them clothed, as well as bundles of ornate textiles, moccasins and pottery, some still containing food. Found in such unusual plenitude, the artifacts could greatly enhance understanding of the enigmatic Inca empire and, particularly, its mountain worship, according to independent experts.
The discovery team braved three days of driving snow and 110-kph winds at the world's highest archaeological site - the 6,600-meter peak of Argentina's Mount Llullaillaco - before they discovered the burial platform, which was under 1.5 meters of rock and earth. The team members were in a race against time to find the treasures Reinhard suspected were there before they ran out of endurance in the brutal conditions, he said. They spent about 12 days at the summit before finally uncovering the mummies.
"At one point, we had to lower one of our workers into the pit by his ankles so he could pull the mummy out with his hands," Reinhard said.
He is a veteran mountain explorer who discovered 16 other Inca mummies, including the celebrated Peruvian "Ice Maiden" Juanita.
Juanita - like numerous other mummies, including the 5,300-year-old "Ice Man" discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991 - was "freeze-dried" by nature rather than deliberately mummified by fellow humans. While she was remarkably well-preserved, the three children from Llullaillaco are in better shape, Reinhard said in a telephone interview from Salta, northwestern Argentina, where the discovery was announced. The bodies, he said, froze before they became dehydrated, so the organs never shriveled, and desiccation never occurred.
"It's pretty amazing that tissue would stay preserved 500 years, even in a stable environment," said David Hunt of the Smithsonian Institution, a specialist in skeletal biology and human mummies. He said a glacier might provide the required combination of cold and high humidity.
In fact, Reinhard said, "The doctors have been shaking their heads and saying (the mummies) sure don't look 500 years old (but) could have died a few weeks ago." The remains have not been tested to determine how long they were buried he acknowledged. They are at an Inca site, swaddled and surrounded by textiles and artifacts that are "so Inca, it really is a given."
Researchers have not determined the cause of death of the children, who were between 8 and 14 when they died, Reinhard said. The typical methods of ritual killing were strangulation, live burial and blows to the head, he noted.
Between about 1438 and 1532, the Incas expanded their empire until it occupied a 4,000-km swath along the Pacific coast of South America from Colombia to central Chile. Admired for their agriculture, architecture and engineering, the Incas were conquered within three years by the Spanish conquistadors, who arrived in 1532.
Reinhard said the mountaintop sacrifice might have been preceded by weeks or months of ritual preparation and exhausting travel, mostly on foot. The summit was at least 200 km from the nearest Inca village.
ONE OF THE INCA mummies found frozen and in near-perfect condition on an Andean peak last month. AP PHOTO