Rick Robinson

Apr 21st 2021

Incan Ice Mummy: Envoy From an Ancient Civilization


In September 1995, as the National Endowment for the Humanities recounts, anthropologist Johan Reinhard and climbing partner Miguel Zárate were high on the upper slopes of Peru’s 20,702-foot high Mount Ampato, taking pictures of the volcanic eruption of a nearby peak.

Zárate spotted a cloth bundle and thought it might be a climber’s lost backpack. Reinhard joked that it might be a climber — and it was … or had been. Inside the bundle was what turned out to be the best-preserved Andean “ice mummy” yet discovered.

A Mummy in the Mountains

Upon examination, the ice mummy was found to be the body of a girl about 12 to 15 years old. She was believed to have been sacrificed to the mountain gods of the Inca civilization during the 15th century.

The mummified girl, dubbed the Lady of Ampato, or simply Mummy Juanita, was in a startling state of preservation. Unlike Egyptian mummies, preserved by an elaborate embalming process, Andean ice mummies are preserved by the cold, dry environment. But while most are dessicated by the dry air, Mummy Juanita was simply frozen solid.

She was so well preserved that investigators were even able to determine changes in her diet by examining her hair, as Ancient Origins reports. These changes showed that her diet became rich in meat and corn and suggested that she was chosen to be sacrificed some months before her death. Along with the fine textiles she was buried in, these changes indicate the elite status the Incas accorded to those chosen to be sacrificed to their gods.

The high status of those sacrificed is also attested by the numerous gifts, such as statuettes, jars of food and even beer, that often accompany ice mummy burials.

The young girl died of a blow to the head, with a CT scan revealing a “crack in the skull and a leftward displacement of the brain,” according to the New York Times.

A Royal Obligation

Reinhard found two more mummy children on Mount Ampato, which aligns with Spanish accounts of children being sacrificed in pairs as “companion sacrifices” for important victims, which Mummy Juanita may have been.

PBS reports that the Incas were in special awe of the high peaks of the Andes, which they saw as bringing them closer to the sun god, Inti. Moreover, the mountains were at once a source of life-giving water and, when they erupted, a source of disaster. Thus, the high peaks of the Andes were seen as an appropriate place for the sacrifice, known as a capacocha, translating to “royal obligation.”

Scientists believe that up to hundreds of ice mummy children remain buried among the high peaks of the Andes. In 1999, Reinhard discovered three more mummy children on Volcán Llullaillaco, on the border between Argentina and Chile.

Mummy Juanita now lies in repose in the Museo Santuarios Andinos in the city of Arequipa, Peru, not far from Mount Ampato. Peru’s Andina news agency reports that, as of November 2020, Mummy Juanita, the Lady of Ampato, was officially listed as a cultural heritage of Peru.