After more than 500 years, the sacrificed Inca ‘Ice Maiden’ has a face

Nov 4, 2023 | 0 comments

By Erin Blakemore

More than 500 years ago, a 14-year-old girl was escorted up an Andean peak and sacrificed to Inca gods. Buried on the mountain with a variety of offerings, the young woman’s body naturally mummified over time, preserving her hair, her fingernails, the colorful robes she wore on her last day. But at some point across the centuries, her face became exposed to the elements, her features slowly vanishing over seasons of sunlight and snowfall.

The 14-year-old Ice Maiden of Ampato, as reconstructed by archaeologist and sculptor Oscar Nilsson. The sacrifice victim wears robes made by modern traditional weavers—an outfit similar to the one she wore on her last day on the mountain peak.

Now, that long-lost face has been recovered thanks to painstaking archaeological analysis and forensic reconstruction. A striking 3-D bust of the young woman, known today as the Ice Maiden of Ampato, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit in Peru and part of an ongoing effort to understand the drama of human sacrifice practiced in the Andes half a millennium ago.

A sacrificial offering
When National Geographic Explorer Johan Reinhard encountered the mummy, also known as Juanita, atop 21,000-foot Mount Ampato during a 1995 expedition, he knew he had discovered something spectacular.

“At first it looked like one big bundle of textiles,” Reinhard recalls. Then he saw the wizened face amid the folds of fabric. Here was a young victim of the elusive Inca ritual known as capacocha.

Capacocha mostly involved the sacrifice of children and animals who were offered to the gods in response to natural disasters, to consolidate state power in far-flung provinces of the Inca Empire, or simply to please the deities. The ritual played an important part in sustaining the Inca Empire and would involve feasts and grand processions to accompany the children, who appear to have been chosen for their beauty and physical perfection. Being selected for sacrifice, researchers believe, would have considered a deep honor by the child’s family and community.

“At first it looked like one big bundle of textiles,” recalls National Geographic Explorer Johan Reinhard of the mummy found on Peru’s Mt. Ampato in 1995. Reinhard’s climbing partner, Miguel Zárate, is shown here at the moment of discovery.

Most of the information we have on capacocha, however, is second hand, notes Dagmara Socha, an archaeologist with the Center for Andean Studies at the University of Warsaw who studies the ritual and commissioned the facial reconstruction of the Ice Maiden of Ampato. “No European colonist ever saw the ceremony,” she explains. Despite gaps in the historical record, the high-altitude archaeological finds of more than a dozen Inca children on Ampato and other mountains point provide critical evidence for what happened during these rituals.

The means of sacrifice varied, perhaps due to customs related to specific gods. Some children were buried alive or strangled; others had their hearts removed. The Ice Maiden’s life ended with a single blunt-force blow to the back of the skull.

In search of the Ice Maiden
Oscar Nilsson knows that skull intimately: He spent months with a replica of it in his Stockholm studio, eventually fashioning a sculpture of the 14-old-girl that, glimpsed from afar, almost seems alive.

It’s a two-step process, says the Swedish archaeologist and sculptor. First, Nilsson immerses himself in the world of his subject with an archaeologist’s eye for detail, digesting as much data as possible to understand what she might have looked like. Even without a mummified face, he can extrapolate the likely depth of the facial tissue that once draped over those bones, using everything from CT scans to DNA analyses to information about diet and disease to make educated guesses about the individual’s face.

One of Peru’s leading mummy experts, Sonia Guillen, photographs the Ice Maiden shortly after her 1995 discovery at Catholic University in Arequipa, Peru.

Then came the handiwork. Nilsson printed a 3-D replica of the Ice Maiden’s skull, plugging wooden pegs into its surface to guide the depth and placement of each hand-crafted, plasticine clay muscle. Eerie eyes, masseter muscles, a nose, the delicate rope-like tissues that constitute a human face: each was added in turn. After making a silicone mold of the bust, he added hundreds of individual hairs and pores in shades of brown and pink. It took ten weeks.

Following the Inca gods
The result, wrapped in robes woven by local women from Peru’s Centro de Textiles Tradicionales, is the main attraction at “Capacocha: Following the Inca Gods” at the Museo Santuarios Andinos in Arequipa, Peru through November 18.

The reconstruction will be displayed alongside the Ice Maiden’s mummy, accompanied by the stories of 15 other children selected for capacocha atop Ampato and other Andean peaks. Their ages range from 3 to about 13, and the mummies and skeletal remains of several are featured as 3-D models at the exhibition, which also showcases holographs of some of the sacred items buried alongside them.

These natural mummies offer scientists tantalizing clues about their last days. When Socha and colleagues conducted toxicological and forensic analyses of the remains of a toddler and four six-to-seven-year-old victims featured in the exhibition, they found they were well cared for in the months before their sacrifice and fed a steady diet of coca leaves, ayahuasca vine, and alcohol in the weeks before their deaths — not as much to intoxicate them as to keep them sedated and anxiety-free as the timeline hurtled toward their sacrifice.

The face of the Ice Maiden was reconstructed by Nilsson using a 3-D printed replica of her skull. The process took 10 weeks.

“We were really surprised” by the toxicology results,” says Socha. “It wasn’t only a brutal sacrifice. The Inca also wanted the children to be in a good mood. It was important to them that they go happily to the gods.”

High altitude, psychogenic substances, the spectacular view, the knowledge the afterlife was near — all must have made for an astonishing ceremony, says Reinhard. “The whole phenomenon must have been overpowering.”

During the last phase of his reconstruction, Nilsson spent hours contemplating, and attempting to capture the young girl’s presence 500 years after her death. The result is both unsettlingly realistic and jarringly personal.

“She was an individual,” the forensic reconstructionist says. “She must have understood her life would end on the mountaintop in a couple of weeks. We can only hope that she believed in the afterworld herself.”

For Reinhard, finally seeing the face of the girl he carried down the mountain on his back decades ago brought the Ice Maiden’s story full circle. “It brings her back to life,” he says. The reconstruction brings the focus as much to her culture and daily life as to her spectacular death.

But Nilsson never forgot the way the Ice Maiden died, even as he brought her to life through his reconstruction. More than anything, he says, he wanted to capture a sense of being frozen — a nod not just to her icy, mummified future but to a girl teetering on the edge of eternity, though still very much alive.

“She knew she was supposed to smile, to express pride,” he says. “Proud to be chosen. But still very, very afraid.”

Credit: National Geographic


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