Planet Earth

To Appease the Mountain

By Shanti MenonJan 1, 1996 6:00 AM


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Most archeologists find their treasure by digging, but Johan Reinhard of the Mountain Institute, in Franklin, West Virginia, made his discovery by climbing--to an altitude of 20,700 feet. Reinhard specializes in high-altitude archeology, and in September he was climbing Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes. The Incas worshiped their towering peaks and built ceremonial centers on them. Reinhard did not expect much from Mount Ampato, though: the snow had only recently melted off its summit for the first time in memory, thanks to a series of nearby volcanic eruptions that had deposited a sunlight-absorbing black ash on the snow. The Incas would not have been able to build on permanently snowcapped peaks, so I never paid attention to Mount Ampato before, Reinhard says. But I had some free time, and I thought I’d take a look at the effects of the eruptions. Two hundred feet down from the summit, on the slope of a crater left by one of Mount Ampato’s own ancient eruptions, Reinhard stumbled on the 500-year-old frozen body of an Inca girl, bundled in fine wool and just lying on a hunk of ice.

Reinhard strapped the body and the ice to which it was attached onto his backpack. The worst part was getting it out of the crater, he recalls. It was really icy and full of gravel. The thing weighed about 85 pounds, and it was getting late--it was pretty unpleasant. And then I had to go down a 45-degree incline in the dark. Reinhard and his climbing partner, Miguel Zarate, decided to leave the mummy at 20,000 feet and proceed down the slope to their high camp for the night.

The next morning, they fetched the mummy and carried her down to the low camp at 16,300 feet. There they transferred their burden to a burro for the 13-hour walk back to the small town of Cabanaconde--a place where people today still believe the mountains are their ancestors. In Cabanaconde the two exhausted men shoved the mummy, now wrapped in Ensolite insulation, into the luggage compartment of a public bus for the 7-hour ride to Arequipa. She now rests there in a freezer at the Catholic University.

She was between 12 and 14 years old, says Reinhard, when she was killed on the summit of Mount Ampato as a human sacrifice--an Inca practice that still sometimes occurs in the Andes and now sometimes leads to prison sentences. She was buried inside a stone platform with ritual offerings, including pottery, bags of maize, and gold and silver statues wrapped in textiles, all of which Reinhard found too. She must have been sacrificed on one of the rare previous occasions when the summit of Mount Ampato was exposed--perhaps during a severe drought. After that the snows evidently returned, preserving her for posterity. When the snow melted again recently, it triggered a massive rock slide that tumbled the mummy into the crater, where Reinhard found her.

On the way into the crater her head covering came off, exposing and drying out her face. But otherwise she arrived at the freezer in Arequipa in a state of excellent preservation, with ice still on her. It is not yet known how she died; the Incas sometimes strangled their human sacrifices and sometimes knocked them on the head. Her internal organs are apparently intact, giving researchers an opportunity to learn what sorts of diseases she may have suffered from. They will also get a chance to analyze her DNA.

Reinhard returned to the summit in October with a full archeological team and uncovered two more bodies, one badly decomposed and probably male, the other a partially frozen female adorned with an elaborate feathered headdress. All three killings, he speculates, may have been part of a ritual to appease the mountains, which the Incas believed controlled the weather. One reason the sacrifice was done might have been that crops and herds were suffering, Reinhard says. Because of the difficulty of getting to the summit, I’d say the main reason for the sacrifice had to do with the mountain, not, say, the sun, because they could have done that lower down. At 20,700 feet, that’s higher than Mount McKinley. We have a guy on the team who’s climbed Everest twice and he’s still impressed.

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