In 1999, archaeologists 6,000 metres up Llullaillaco volcano in northern Argentina found something unexpected. Excavations revealed that they had stumbled upon some Incan burial sites that held three children. Further analysis found that these children hadn’t died from natural causes, but were sacrificed – their bodies frozen and preserved for hundreds of years.
These three children are now in Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, where they are kept in special exhibits that have been created to mimic the same low oxygen and low temperature conditions that have kept them preserved for 500 years.
Being a 26-hour bus ride from where we were in Puerto Iguazu, visiting the museum was a bit of a large detour, but one that I was keen to make. Having found out so much about the Incas throughout our travels in South America, I was interested to see how such an advanced culture could commit such horrific acts.
The Incas were incredible empire builders, who showed they could create a city in the most remote and desolate of places. But their administrative structures and impressive buildings couldn’t prepare for or protect them from the catastrophic events, like earthquakes and volcano eruptions, that would routinely rock their homeland. According to the museum, the Incas turned to their religion for answers; believing that chosen children were able to cross over to the gods’ world, where they could persuade the gods to protect the Incas and stop these disasters from happening.
The capacocha (ritual sacrifices) didn’t happen often and coincided with important events in Incan society – like a catastrophic event or the death of an emperor. When they did happen, the children were carefully selected from the highest classes for their purity, attractiveness and status. It was considered a privilege to be picked – they didn’t believe they were going to die, they would be transcending to godliness.
The children would be prepared with lengthy celebrations – which would see them travel (by foot) across the empire to Cusco, and then to their final resting place on top of some of the highest mountains in the region.
The children in Salta were walked up to the summit of the mountain and plied with chicha (a sweet alcoholic drink) until they fell asleep. Then, they were arranged in specific positions, lowered into prepared holes in the snow – where they would never wake up.
After strolling through the small exhibit, looking at all of the perfectly persevered pots, textiles and jewellery that the children had been buried with, I was ready to see one of them. The museum only ever shows one at a time – keeping the others safe in storage and rotating them every few months – so the one you see is down to luck.
We entered a darkened and chilled room through double doors and there she was. Sat cross-legged facing us, ‘the lightning girl’ was huddled in a tiny ball – her pale face peeking out from behind long dark hair that hung limply around her shoulders.
Even though I’d seen how she would appear in the pictures we’d seen in the exhibition, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. In the soft lighting, she looked as if she’d only just fallen asleep – the stillness of her features the only giveaway that she wouldn’t wake up. Staring into her face, I couldn’t help but expected her to open her eyes at any moment (which was a little creepy).
Her ‘life-likeness’ actually made me quite uncomfortable to look at her. In contrast, an exhibition on another floor showed another Inca ‘mummy’ of a woman that had been found by grave-robbers and was very poorly preserved. The woman looked far more like the dried-up and shrivelled skeleton that you’d expect – nothing like the girl sleeping peacefully up the stairs.
The museum is very small and the children are the crowd-drawers, but we left the place astonished by what we’d seen.
Apparently there are other sacrificed children who remain in their burials on the mountain top. But it caused so much controversy when these three children were removed from their resting places that scientists won’t return to search for others. Locals believe that the mountain and the children are sacred, and so the other children will be left up there forever. Although they all suffered an awful fate, I left the museum feeling that at least the children who’d been found were being cared for after all these years; rather than being left all alone on the cold and desolate mountainside.
We’d come to Salta mainly for the museum, but we were both surprised by the prettiness of the city centre, which is very historic.
To make the most of it, we took a teleferico ride up to a nearby peak to get a better view.
The next day we made our next stop in Argentina’s wine country – Mendoza – on the way through to Buenos Aires. We’d planned to do a cycling tour of the vinyards, which produce the world’s best Malbec, armed with nothing but a map and a picnic basket, but it wasn’t to be. Bus problems meant that we arrived too late to get very far and, even though we tried to stay an extra day, it turned out that all of the vinyards and bike rental companies were shut.
Instead, we wandered through the streets – marvelling at how European it all looked – and took our picnic to the park, where we relaxed in the sun ahead of our whirlwind tour of BA.