In January 1985, a team of archaeologists came across the 500-year old, well-preserved mummy of a little Inca boy at an elevation of over 15,000 feet on the Cerro de Aconcagua. It is possible that this boy is only one of hundreds of Inca children who were sacrificed and buried in icy graves atop the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern hemispheres.
To date, over 115 ceremonial sites have been excavated. The offerings were dedicated to state deities as well as local mountain gods. As with many other child mummies found on top of the mountain, the approximately 7 year old Inca boy showed head-wounds pointing to a violent death and was well preserved to the point that the content of his stomach could be analyzed to reveal more about the Inca diet. In the course of these examinations, scientists also found evidence of how the Incas “fattened up” the children chosen for sacrifice. The remains found in the children’s stomach hint at remarkable changes in their diet beginning up to 12 months before their deaths. While studies suggest that most of the sacrificed children were from peasant families eating mostly vegetables such as potatoes, they were given a more diverse diet consisting of meat and maize during the last year of their life. The fact that they were probably chosen among conquered subjects, indicates that they might not only have been killed to pacify the mountain gods but to instill power and respect for the imperial power as well.
The Cerro de Aconcagua lies in Argentina, west of Mendoza near the Chilean border. There are various interpretations as to where the mountain received its name. Whether it was derived from the native Quechua’s “akun” (“summit”), “ka” (“other”) and “agua” (“admired/feared”), or from other roots is not certain. The 22,837 ft (6,960 meters) high mountain is a relatively easy climb in mountaineering terms if approached via the normal route from the north. This is why the mountain is quite popular with climbers. Yet, because many not so well equipped mountaineers underestimate the weather conditions, many casualties have occurred on the climb as well.
While the mountain was already worshipped by early people inhabiting the region, the Incas were the tribe who developed the idea of climbing it, like a stairway to heaven. Some rituals like capa cocha, where children were sacrificed to the mountain gods, were believed to be particularly cruel. Yet, scientists revealed that the children were actually given coca leaves and alcohol to ease the climb, which explains the peaceful expression of their faces. Following early Spanish reports, the children were first brought to Cuzco, the Inca capital, and then paraded to the mountain top where they were killed and buried together with gifts and artifacts.
Indigenous groups do not always approve of the scientific interest in the mountain mummies. There have been repeated protests against exhibiting the mummified Inca children at museums. Not only have they been removed from their original burying ground, a place still regarded as sacred by some people, but their peace has also been disturbed by showcasing them to the curious public.
Dr. Andrew Wilson, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Bradford, observed: The mummies were so extraordinarily preserved, it was impossible not to feel fully engaged with them as human beings. It felt almost as if the individuals were recounting their stories themselves, that was what was so chilling about it.