A mummified Inca woman in her early 20s, who lived over 500 years ago, housed for the past 100 years at the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Germany, was just determined to have been from what is now Peru. This was the result of a study published Wednesday by German archeologist Andreas Nerlich and his team, in the peer-reviewed journal, Public Library of Science (PLoS) One. The latest realization that distinguishes this finding, other than the fact that she was “displaced” from her original home (undetermined for more than 100 years), is that she was likely the victim of sacrificial “murder.”
As a result of technologies – radiocarbon dates from DNA evidence (based on a stable isotope analysis), detailed CT scans, and injury reconstructions –scientists have identified her general area of origin, her diet, the landscape of her region, the nature of her violent death, and that she had a parasitic illness that substantiates her background as being one of poverty.
In South America, ritual sacrifice was customary and is well-documented. In the Incan Empire, which began around 1100 AD, there were often religious rituals where young girls were given up. This was not considered “murder,” but an honor for the families. High respect was given to the girls’ parents and local communities of sacrificed victims. They were mummified along with kings.
The Inca Empire began with the founding of the city Cuzco (Spanish name) in the fertile region of El Tahuantinsuyu (Quechua name), or “the Land of the Four Extremes,” spreading to the North (to Quito, Ecuador) and to the South (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile). The Inca ruled over 10 million people, who spoke perhaps one hundred different languages. Before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the Incas had the most expansive empire in the world. Its domain included the Peruvian coast, mountainous regions and valleys, tropical forests, and the Atacama Desert, which is extremely dry. It is there that the mummy is believed to have been found by Princess Therese of Bavaria in the 1890s, and it is the dryness that is said to have contributed to the excellent preservation of the mummy.
Inca culture stems in part from its precedents – the Paracas (800 to 100 BCE) and the Nazca, who came after them. The latter is documented by geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, meaning that they communicated in place of a written language through markings on ceramics. Paracas art has been preserved primarily in tombs and on mummies. Pre-Inca customs prevailed when the Incas conquered these prior groups, incorporated into the Inca Empire willingly or unwillingly.
When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1532 entered what is now Peru, he was amazed by the riches of the Inca Empire, found mainly in the temples or huacas, the Quechua sacred places where the dead were buried. Inca huacas included tombs with tunnels and a reception room, under the ground.
The mummy announced on Wednesday is not the first one to be discovered from the Inca and pre-Inca era. El Señor de Sipán (the Lord of Sipan) was a king, prior to the Incas. In 1989, an important excavation took place by a Peruvian archeologist which led to the discovery of his huaca. Because of the riches found, it was clear that the burial site belonged to royalty. Due to this discovery, much was learned about how the pre-Incas lived. Primarily, the Inca believed that death was a journey and so royalty, beautifully and ritually dressed, should be accompanied by their subtitulos (servants) and concubines. They, along with animals, were sacrificed, and at the burial site were also found containers with potatoes and corn, for the journey. All were well-preserved through embalming and did not decompose, partially as a result of the dry climate.
In 1995, Juanita, “the Ice Maiden,” was another mummy discovered near Arequipa, on top of Mount Ampato in the Andes Mountains of Peru. She was between 12 and 14 years old, also sacrificed by Inca priests, and died around the same time period as the one from the recent study. The reason she was discovered is that, while her body was frozen in the high altitude of 20,000 feet for 500 years, a nearby volcano caused Ampato’s snowcap to melt. She had been housed in a burial site, which had collapsed. When it cascaded down the mountain slope, it revealed the treasures that were offerings to the gods. Shortly afterward, other children’s bodies were discovered on the same mountain, in close proximity to Juanita.
One of the most precious resources for learning about Peru’s history is the book, Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas, by El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616). Because he was born to an Inca mother, by whom he was raised, and had the resources of his Spaniard father, he was well-educated, but of the Inca people, and could ably relate the oral Inca tradition of a well-organized community-minded, highly developed culture, told in beautiful prose and poetry.
One of the key issues surrounding Inca burial sites is that they have been raided for artifacts. This lucrative tourist business led to the removal of the mummy in the recent study, and has caused the desecration of many sites. Steps are now being taken to preserve what remains.
For now, international attention is on the young woman whose life was described as having been sacrificed by ritual murder, and who was consequently mummified.
By Fern Remedi-Brown