“El Nino” is one of the three Llullaillaco Children, which are considered some of the best-preserved Inca mummies ever found. // © 2017 Flickr Creative Commons user Joseph Castro
Feature image (above): The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology is located in Plaza 9 de Julio in downtown Salta. // © 2017 Flickr Creative Commons user juangeracaris
How did I get stuck, alone, in a pitch-black room with a mummy? Well, let’s back up first.
In 2007, the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology) opened in Salta, Argentina. It was the first time the public could view the Incan mummies famously found in 1999 at Mount Llullaillaco (pronounced yoo-yeye-YAH-co), a dormant Andean volcano near the border of Chile. Stories about how these children were naturally embalmed, and therefore preserved to lifelike conditions, haunted me. And why were they all alone on the summit of a towering volcano in the first place?
Located in Plaza 9 de Julio, a popular downtown Salta town square, the museum is easily accessible. Determined to learn more during a work trip to Salta, I made a beeline to the museum during my downtime. And the museum built on my suspense: A series of exhibits pertaining to Incan mountain culture preceded the finale, glass enclosure featuring one of the three Llullaillaco Children. (The children are rotated every six months.)
Though the focus of the museum is specific, the range of topics examined is broad. The museum begins its story about the high mountains by explaining nature’s role in American pre-Hispanic cultures. The mountains were believed to be protective gods, so the Incans built sacred ritual (and sacrificial) sites on the summits of high mountains. There are approximately 50 mountains in Salta that contain archeological remains, but, at more than 22,000 feet high, Mount Llullaillaco is the tallest peak of the region and was considered one of the most important places for worship.
Fast-forward to modern times, and the reason we know so much about these religious sites is because of the secular sport of mountain climbing. Mount Llullaillaco was first summited in 1952. Since then, more expedition teams have summited and uncovered archeological remains. On his fourth expedition to the mountain, anthropologist Johan Reinhard unearthed the bodies of the Incan children.
So, what exactly were the kids doing on this high-altitude peak? If this were a podcast, I’d suggest shielding your children’s ears from what comes next. Some 500 years ago, the Llullaillaco Children — a boy and two girls — were chosen to be sacrificed to the gods due to their noble ancestry and near-perfect physical features. Such sacrifices were believed to bring health and prosperity to the community.
They were dressed in their best clothing and lulled to sleep with chicha (an alcoholic beverage made from maize) and coca leaves. Once asleep, they were buried with an assortment of ritual objects, and the kids froze — and stayed frozen for hundreds of years.
It was with a heavy heart that I approached the glass enclosure featuring “El Nino” (The Boy), who appears hunched forward on his knees as though asleep in the cold. I understood the honorable role of sacrifice in his culture, but his early death — at the hands of his loved ones — didn’t sit right with me. I was fixated on his small features, perfectly preserved due to dry air and cold temperatures. He looked more like a sculpture of a 7-year-old child than a 500-year-old skeleton.
My partner left the room, and I continued to observe the boy with no one else in sight. The lights in the museum went out, and I could no longer see anything — but I certainly did not feel alone.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me: The boy, and his two companions, would be remembered forever.