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Some years ago, a group of archaeologists found the frozen corpses of three indigenous children atop a volcano, which they determined had been Inca sacrifices. Today, the perfectly conserved corpses are on exhibition at a museum in northwestern Argentina, where thousands of people come to see them every month. But the exhibition has caused controversy, as local indigenous communities demand the return of the bodies, scientists worry about their preservation in the museum and others question the humanity of the display.

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by Ivonne Jeannot Laens, Reporter, Monday - March 12, 2012

SALTA, ARGENTINA – Three children, ages 6, 7 and 15, left their towns one day and set off toward the peak of a volcano. Accompanied by Inca priests, they walked for months or even years until they at last reached the Llullaillaco Volcano in northwestern Argentina. There, the priests got them drunk and buried them alive as an offering to the gods.

The Incas selected the two girls and one boy for their beauty and perfection. The girls wore tunics, fitted at the waist, and long braids in their hair. The boy donned a large headdress made of white feathers. The priests buried them with various objects that symbolized life in the communities: miniature gold statues, vessels, sandals and small bags of dried food.

This all occurred some 500 years ago, during the time of the Inca Empire. After uncovering the children’s bodies at 6,700 meters above sea level in 1999, the expedition group carefully reconstructed details of the long walk and the objective of the sacrifice.

Archaeologist Christian Vitry says he was one of the 14 men and women who participated in the expedition, led by Johan Reinhard, a U.S. explorer for National Geographic Society and the principle investigator for The Mountain Institute. After studying Inca culture for years, Reinhard had strong suspicions that they would find human remains atop the volcano.

Vitry says that he and his fellow expedition members had to withstand difficult climactic conditions to reach their destination, with temperatures plummeting down to 40 degrees Celsius below zero and strong gusts of wind.

“When we established the final camp, at a height of 6,600 meters, a storm broke,” he says. “It lasted four days, and the tents were covered in snow.”

But at the peak, they were able to uncover the first body, a 7-year-old boy in a gray tunic, according to local media reports covering the expedition's discovery. He was frozen in the fetal position with a brown and red blanket covering his torso. The researchers named him, “El Niño,” or, “The Boy.”

Soon they found a 15-year-old girl, whom they baptized, “La Doncella,” which means, “The Maiden.” Her legs were bent and crossed, and her hands rested on her abdomen. A cloak covered her back, and a metal adornment hung from her chest.

Finally, they uncovered the body of a 6-year-old girl. Her head was upright, which allowed the expedition members a perfect view of her face, which was framed by her black hair. Part of her head and her chest had been burned by a lightning bolt, so they named her, “La Niña del Rayo” – “The Lightning Bolt Girl.”

Vitry says the Incas sacrificed the children following a ritual characteristic of the period called “Capacocha.” During this ceremony, the children first visited the center of the Inca Empire, which was located in Cusco, Peru, and then walked to the places where they would be sacrificed. The sacrifice’s objective was to show appreciation to the gods for water and the other vital elements and to ask them for protection.

The archaeologist says that the Incas had a different concept of life and death.

“They believed that the children didn’t die but slept and later woke up together with their ancestors and deities,” he says.

La Universidad Católica de Salta initially safeguarded the bodies. The provincial government later decided to erect the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña in order to exhibit the mummies, known as Los Niños del Llullaillaco. Vitry is today the official archaeologist of the museum.

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Comment Preferences

  •  500 years seems long enough to be tasteful. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, whaddaya, Satya1, hnichols

    Anyone wants to dig up my corpse and put me in a museum 500 years from now, feel free.

    Everything in moderation, including moderation.

    by Troubadour on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 06:45:22 AM PDT

  •  I think people think there is a sort (4+ / 0-)

    of romantic charm about a simple people who believed in eternal life and who sacrificed children in this way. But shit, they killed children by burying them alive (or cutting out their hearts). It just sounds awful, no matter how many centuries ago it occurred. I guess it does show us that despite the idiocy of today's religious people, we have progressed from our worst practices.

  •  We visited this very museum with my boys. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hnichols, IL clb, Louisiana 1976, Creosote

    The exhibit has much more than the bodies of these children displayed and those bodies are displayed in such a way that you don't have to view them.

    What solution do the indigenous communities suggest?

  •  The fundamental question here is whether (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cadejo4, enhydra lutris, mollyd, hnichols

    human remains are an artifact akin to pottery, or textiles, or relief-fragments and therefore suitable for the same kinds of display. The same didactic value could be obtained by high-quality veristic reproductions.

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

    by angry marmot on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 07:24:27 AM PDT

  •  they belong to their families (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    imagine if your mom waswas dug up and put on display. There is no purpose served by this that outways the claims of the indigenous peoples.

    Whereas you may think 500 is enough, it is not what we think that matters.

    fact does not require fiction for balance (proudly a DFH)

    by mollyd on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 07:34:28 AM PDT

    •  500 years is what, 25 generations? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      At least. So whose family is their family?

      •  we can identify (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        the descendants of the Incas, so I don't understand your question.

        fact does not require fiction for balance (proudly a DFH)

        by mollyd on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 07:46:10 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Inca descendants in general don't have (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Louisiana 1976, IreGyre

          much power in the Andean nations, although that is changing very slowly.  

          You can't put them back because grave robbers, many of whom are also descendants of the Inca peoples, would desecrate the graves for profit as they have so many others.

          On top of that, climate change will damage a lot of the sacrifices that were once perfectly preserved as they are exposed by melting ice and warming temperatures.

          Better to keep them in the museum.  The admission cost helps preserve the patrimony and history of the Andean people in a locale they have access to.

          It's sad, but better the archaeologists than the grave robbers.

      •  It's not always about "families" in the (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mollyd, entrelac

        strict sense of documented lineal descent. In the US, for instance, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 operates on the notion of "cultural affiliation," defined as:

        "cultural affiliation" means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group.
        There are instances when this is a bit "messy," but it is a good guiding principle.

        As an archaeologist who has spent quite a bit of time dealing with human remains in a variety of countries, each with a unique perspective on the excavation / analysis / display of human remains, I still always come back to the question of what good is served by displaying actual human remains in museum contexts, other than morbid curiosity?

        Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

        by angry marmot on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 08:21:08 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Put them back (0+ / 0-)

    where they were found. They don't belong in a museum.
    I find it more than distasteful to display dead bodies.  

    El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The people united will never be defeated

    by mint julep on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 08:51:40 AM PDT

    •  I take it you don't like Egyptian mummies either (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Look, if you put them back grave robbers will get them.  Humans will always do the wrong thing if given a chance to as an individual.  The only way to prevent this is to put them in some sort of collective institution.

      If the local populations or the local government is capable of guarding the remains and insuring their security than that's one thing.  But time and time again, as places like Egypt so aptly demonstrate, that's simply not the case.  And once the cat's out of the bag it becomes a race by all interested actors to ransank the place for all it's worth.

      Saying "just leave it alone" doesn't work, because as soon as someone thinks they can get away with it, they will stop doing the right thing and do the wrong thing.  Because they are human.

      "Foolproof systems don't take into account the ingenuity of fools."

      by overclocking on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 08:56:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Unearthed antiquities will never last as long (0+ / 0-)

    since they have been unearthed as they did in their original resting place.   Five hundred years from now, there will be nothing left of these.

    I don't have that much respect for the preservation of today.

    . . . from Julie, Julia. "Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now what?"

    by 88kathy on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 09:03:52 AM PDT

    •  Global warming and erosion of mountains... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      some burials already damaged by changing climate when discovered... and others were endangered. this is not the same as an arid unchanging environment that some ancient mummies/burials are in...

      Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

      by IreGyre on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 03:40:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  They dug members of my family (0+ / 0-)

    in Kodiak, Alaska. I remember my mother telling me how the people were horrified. They are finally repatriating  native remains in the USA. I've always wanted to go to the east coast to do some digs in cemeteries there. I want to study them, we can build a warehouse and museum so the relatives can come and view grandpa and grandma.

    •  and how about ones that are thousands of years (0+ / 0-)

      old? or tens or hundreds of thousands of years old.... at some point remains are not Grandpa or Grandma any longer.

      And example... There is some evidence that some very early Americans came from what is now Spain during the last Ice age... the Folsom stone spear points are very close in design to ones from the Iberian peninsula of a slightly earlier date. AND there has been a find of a very ancient skeleton which has distinctly European and not Asian characteristics.... and even that very rare and important find has been claimed as an ancestor by first-peoples / Native Americans ... with lawsuits demanding they be turned over for burial and the bones lost to science.

      There has to be a point where a line can be drawn that still protects rights to ancestors resting places and the burials but does not include an open ended view of controlling kinship to all remains found anywhere no matter how old. The further back the remains are from the more they can speak to us about the ancient past of humanity. And what science can learn from them about our antecedents is something we can all share and is valuable to all people.

      Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

      by IreGyre on Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 03:51:14 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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