Part of the morbid allure of mummies lies in their surreal out-of-time physicality. Mummies from around the world offer people a glimpse into the literal, tangible past, bringing history to life in a way no written chronicle can. And when it comes to making ancient life seem real, few human relics can match the impact of the Inca mummy girl Juanita.
Mummy Juanita – also known as Juanita the Ice Maiden – was discovered in the Andes in 1995. Uncannily well-preserved (even her organs and the contents of her stomach were intact) she immediately captivated researchers. She’s believed to have been an Inca child, sacrificed to appease the gods around the year 1450. She was a mummy long before she was found. Nevertheless, if it hadn’t been for the volcanic eruption that effectively dislodged her resting place, she might never have been discovered at all.
Today, Juanita has been relocated from her icy tomb. She sits on display at the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries in Arequipa, Peru, where she seems to greet visitors from across the centuries.
She Was A Healthy Teen When She Died
The superb condition of Juanita’s corpse and the artifacts buried with her reveal fascinating details about her life. Tests indicate that she likely died between 1440 and 1450, and at any point between the ages of 12 and 15. Further studies suggest she was in generally excellent health, with “a good and well-balanced diet,” though she had fasted for one day prior to her sacrifice.
Even Juanita’s clothes were well preserved. The red tunic she was wearing, as well as her llama skin and alpaca wool shoes, indicate that she likely came from nobility, and that she may have lived in the city of Cuzco.
She Suffered From Blunt Force Trauma
Blunt force trauma is an ugly way to go. Nevertheless, there were far worse ways to die in the Incan Empire. According to experts, victims were also sacrificed via “strangulation… asphyxia, or burying the victim alive.”
Juanita’s official autopsy report determined that she died due to a blow to the head, and mentions the “massive craniocerebral injury” that “destroyed and collapsed” not only the upper and frontal parts of her skull, but also her facial bones.
She Was Likely Drunk And Drugged Before Her Sacrifice
According to historians, the Incas often attempted to alleviate the trauma of imminent sacrifice in a rite known as capacocha. As National Geographic explains it, children were customarily given chicha, a potent alcoholic drink distilled from corn, to “ensure intoxication.”
She Was Found Holding Her Umbilical Cord, Which Revealed More About Her Genealogy
Juanita was found holding her umbilical cord, which had likely been saved specifically for the occasion of her sacrifice. The stem cells contained therein revealed a wealth of information about her genealogy, and established (via genome) that she likely hailed from a very rare group of native peoples.
She Was Probably Chosen For Sacrifice Before Birth
According to some experts, many Incan child sacrifices were selected at birth. The “healthiest, strongest, and most attractive child” was generally chosen for the “honor” of slaughter; and candidates who came from nobility, as Juanita likely did, were given special precedence over members of the working class. (This might explain why Juanita’s umbilical cord was preserved along with her body: it suggests a fate that was already irrevocably established).
Why Juanita was sacrificed remains a mystery. Scholars believe that her type of ritualistic killing was meant to appease the gods, thereby ensuring rain, good crops, and protection. But the “necessity” of sacrifice could also be be triggered by other major events, like natural disasters or the unexpected deaths of prominent leaders, which were seen as indications of the gods’ displeasure.
The Explorers Who Found Juanita Almost Gave Up
Explorer Johan Reinhard and his crew were on an expedition to the Andes Mountains in 1996 to try and find any sort of Incan artifact on the mountains. He brought his team there after he visited in the 1980s, and vowed to do more research about Incan culture.
They searched for a week and nearly gave up before Reinhard decided last minute to climb the summit of Llullaillaco. He saw some dirt that looked like “fill” dirt, or dirt that people had walked on habitually. He followed it, and from there found a rare type of sea shell that had a llama carved into it. Then he knew he had found an important site, and not far from there, Juanita was waiting.
She’s One Of The Best-Preserved Mummies In The World
Juanita is one of the most intact mummies of all time. Unlike the standard desiccated mummy, she was frozen solid, which kept her as lifelike as it’s possible for a corpse to be. She has, however, experienced some perhaps inevitable setbacks since her retrieval.
In 2006, her skin reportedly began to turn from its “natural beige shade to a darker brown, a sign of trouble,” and officials quickly took steps to arrest the problem.
She Was Only Found Because Of A Volcanic Eruption
Juanita might have remained atop Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes indefinitely, were it not for a nearby volcanic eruption that caused the peak’s snowcap to melt, thereby dislodging her burial site and sending her tumbling down the mountain.
In 1995, anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his assistant, Miguel Zárate, discovered the ragged bundle containing Juanita’s remains. Along with her incredibly preserved corpse, they found pottery and miniature sculptures of llamas, which were likely intended to be gifts for the gods it was assumed she’d meet in the afterlife.
Her Display Unit Is A Work Of Art Itself
In 1996, Juanita was moved to the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., where she remained extremely preserved. That’s partially due to a specially acclimatized conservation display. Why is this necessary? Juanita – and other cold weather mummies like her – are preserved so well because of how cold they are.
They need a combination of low temperatures and dry, thin air – something museums typically don’t have. So they need high tech chambers that mimic the cold, mountain air so they don’t start to decompose.
She Inspired A Mummy Craze
Juanita’s discovery sparked a new wave of interest in mummies and their excavation, and in some cases, the trend was taken up by thieves who attempted to plunder various archaelogical sites illegally. According to the National Endowment for the Humanities:
“Eager for gold and silver statues to sell on the black market, looters pose a constant threat to high-altitude … sites, which are difficult to protect. Some even use dynamite to blast through the ice, decapitating or disintegrating any mummies below in the process.”
There May Be Hundreds Of Sacrificed Children Still Out There
Juanita’s sacrifice was far from an isolated incident. On the contrary, historians theorize that there were likely “hundreds of Inca children sacrificed nearly 500 years ago [who remain] entombed in graves of ice atop the western hemisphere’s highest peaks.”
The Explorer Who Found Her Has An Interesting Life As Well
Reinhard is an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society. His biggest claim to fame was finding Juanita and the other frozen mummies of the Incas. Growing up, he had a fascination with exploration, and studied archaeology in college. He’s participated in expeditions in the Himalayas, Southern Asia, the Maldive Islands, and several parts of Europe. His speciality? Hidden lands.
Along with Juanita, Reinhard discovered several ritual sites in the Incan Mountains.
Reinhard Found Fourteen More Mountain Sacrifices In His Travels Of The Andes Mountains
After discovering Juanita, Reinhard and his crew continued to search the Andes Mountains for other mummies. Between 1996 and 1999, they managed to unearth 14 children, all of whom are possible the most well preserved mummies in the world. Surrounding them was a treasure trove of Incan valuables, which indicates to Reinhard and his team they were sacrificed in a similar way to Juanita.
The difference, however, is the children likely were extremely frozen before their death. Their organs were in impeccable shape because of that, and researchers could even make out their individual features.