Children of the Ice

THE SNOWCAPPED VOLCANIC PEAK the Andean cordillera looms majestic and forbidding above the Peruvian town of Cabanaconde, and for 500 years its summit has been wreathed in pellucid ice as high as a man's thigh. But in 1993 the volcano began furious eruptions, spewing nearby Mount Ampato with hot ash. Into this land of fire and ice Johan Reinhard--conqueror of more than 100 Andean summits and restless searcher for archeological remains of the great Inca civilization-set out this summer on what he figured would be a little reconnaissance trip. For three days in September he and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zarate, trekked across treacherous ice fields and braved the Hiroshima-like clouds, dust and ash of the sputtering volcano. When they reached the summit ridge of Ampato at 20,700 feet, Reinhard, 51, was stunned to find that the heat of the eruption had cleared it of ice and snow-and thus of the previously impenetrable layer of time itself. Sticking out of the thin ridge were some feathers, the headdress of a small, perfectly preserved statue. Two others sat nearby. The men scrambled down the ridge. There they spied the archeological find of a lifetime: the frozen, perfectly preserved body of an Inca girl, her high-cheekboned face and soft hair completely exposed and her body, curled into a fetal position, still locked in the ice's embrace.

She had fallen from the summit above as the ice melted and loosened her 500-year-old grave. Sharing her icy coffin were shards of ceramic and fragments of food, bits of wood and pieces of bone. It was clearly part of a ritual offering. The girl, probably 12 to 14 at her death, was "killed by Inca priests to appease the gods, especially the god of the mountain," says Reinhard, who announced the find last week. She was swathed in fine woolens, the outermost one a chocolate brown adorned with cream-colored stripes. As darkness and snow fell, Reinhard and Zarate gathered all the artifacts they could, and then carefully wielded their ice picks to separate "Juanita," still in ice, from the mountain to which she had been offered so many centuries ago. Stuffing her as best he could into his backpack, Reinhard climbed out of the crater and, with Zarate hacking footholds in the perilously steep ice, carried her off the summit.

The Ice Child is at least the 11th Inca sacrifice discovered. In 1954 a mule keeper came upon the perfectly preserved body of a 10-year-old girl in an ice cave atop El Plomo near Santiago. Newspaper accounts described "youthful features" that bore "an expression of sweetness and repose." But unlike her predecessors, Juanita was found frozen instead of freeze-dried. And she has something as valuable in archeology as in real estate: location. She is the first Inca sacrifice found with such a complete stone burial platform and base camp used by the sacrificial party. "We have a complete context," says bioanthropologist Sonia Guillen, director of the Mall-qui ("mummy") Center in Ilo, Peru. "We will have a better idea of the ritual and what it means for the reconstruction of this period of Andean history." In particular, Juanita might reveal "more about Inca religion," says Inca scholar Craig Morris of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "Did they take many people to the summit to witness the sacrifice? The size of the base camp might speak to that. And who exactly was performing the sacrifices? What preparations went into them?"

Juanita turns out to be only the tip of Mount Ampato's sacrificial iceberg. In October, Reinhard, having enlisted the logistical muscle of the National Geographic Society, headed back to the peak with an 18-person expedition. At 19,200 feet they found ritual platforms "deliberately placed in crude circles," Reinhard says. About a foot underground, the team dug up another mummy (so-called not because it was embalmed, Egyptian style, but because the cold and aridity of the mountaintop preserved it so well). A girl, probably 10 to 12 years old, she wore an elaborate headdress of pinkish red and had been buried amid three distinct layers of pottery. Nearby lay a third body, a child of 12 to 14. Less well preserved, it is mostly skeleton. They, too, died curled in a fetal position.

The Inca did not write, so archeologists' knowledge of their ceremonies and beliefs is based largely on accounts of the Spaniards. But since the conquistadors were more intent on obliterating the civilization than chronicling it, their reports are considered suspect. That's why archeological finds such as Beinhard's are so important. And already the inferences are flying fast and furious, starting with how the victims died. Since Juanita wears what Reinhard describes as "a pleasant expression," he suspects "that she may have been drugged and buried alive." Chicha-alcohol made from germinated corn--was a likely sedative. (The Plomo mummy had vomit stains on her clothing, suggesting that she was in a boozy stupor at the time of death.) Other sacrifices likely died by strangling, smothering or a blow to the head. The young victims were physically unblemished, and were probably chosen from families of middle to high social rank, says Reinhard. Some urchin off the street would hardly be a worthy offering. But the third set of remains may be a startling exception. Artifacts found nearby were less valuable than those found with the girls, raising the possibility that he or she was a servant chosen to serve the girl in the afterlife.

Archeologists have been in the dark about the rituals surrounding the sacrifice, and that's where the Ampato finds speak most eloquently. "We're getting a wealth of information about the ceremonial process," says Reinhard. Above the two children, for instance, are bits of sod and wild grass, probably carried up on llamas and enough to cover a square 100 feet on a side. "They even built a trail using grass and wood," says Reinhard--perhaps the Inca version of the red-carpet treatment leading the young victim to the glorious beyond.

How often were children offered to the gods? The Inca sacrificed llamas as often as once a day, says Morris of the American Museum, but human offerings were much rarer, especially compared with the sacrifice-happy Aztecs (page 75). Human sacrifice was "tied in to the life cycles of rulers, events in the royal family, seasonal changes, agricultural cycles, celestial events, celebrations of birth and death," says archeologist Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky. Although the three mummies of Ampato may have been killed as annual offerings at events such as Dillehay describes, it is possible they gave their lives for a more immediate payoff. To build the sacrificial site on Ampato, the Incas had to climb to the same spot Reinhard did. That is possible only if the nearby volcano, erupting, melted the ice first. Reinhard suspects that eruptions 500 years ago were contaminating water supplies and spewing ash over crops and pastures, and that the children died to appease the mountain god and quell its fire-spewing innards.

That possibility fits nicely with the reigning view of Inca religion. Ever since 1980, when Reinhard began to carve out a unique scholarly niche for himself as a high-altitude archeologist, he has been collecting evidence that "the mountains were not merely the homes of the gods," as he wrote in National Geographic in 1992. "They literally were the gods and could kill with avalanche, rockfall, lightning, blizzard, and wind or bless with rain-filled clouds." The sanctity of the snow-topped peaks is reflected in Inca architecture. Windows often open onto the sacred peaks; building stones are often shaped like mountains. And the importance of the mountains was reflected in the Incas themselves. Some who lived in the shadow of conical peaks deformed their heads into points, the Spaniards reported; some of those Beneath a squat mountain flattened the tops of their heads, probably through binding like that once inflicted on the feet of Chinese girls. The Incas trekked 20,000 feet into the clouds, and gave a few of their precious children to the mountain because the mountain was god.

Beyond Inca religion, the ice mummies may speak to larger questions of how the largest and most powerful civilization in pre-European America achieved cultural and political cohesion. The Incas' far-flung empire assembled through bloody conquest as well as peaceful absorption of almost 100 neighboring states, stretched from southern Chile into Colombia (map). At its pre-conquistador height beginning in 1438, the population reached an estimated 6 million. The empire, though under the control of an absolute ruler (called the Inka) regarded as the son of the sun, tolerated and even encouraged home rule and cultural diversity. Conquered states were permitted to retain their original religion. Perhaps finds such as those on Ampato will show that there were imperial sacrifices as well as local sacrifices-and a centralized imperial religion coexisting with local practices. With finds like the ice mummies, Morris says, "I think we will begin to see how the Inca used religion, as well as ideology and politics, to control people and to increase the cohesion of the society and the strength of the empire."

All three mummies are now in a deep freeze at Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria in Arequipa. Every evening last week scientists led by Guillen removed Juanita, and, applying the lessons learned with the "Iceman" found in the Italian-Austrian Alps in 1991, began to peel carefully away a few of Juanita's wrappings. At one session, NEWSWEEK'S Sharon Stevenson reports, green-suited researchers lifted the mummy onto the table in the makeshift laboratory. For an hour, they used a hair dryer to warm cloths that they had laid on the ice-filled blankets, and managed to get the outermost blanket to fall away, revealing the small girl's slim knees and shins. Attacking the thick ice mounds embedded in the cloths, Guillen probed the blankets with a soldering iron, hissing the ice into vapor puffs. Dr. Silvia Quevedo, a Chilean bioanthropologist, explained that "each layer of clothing has meaning and describes the person"- her social class, marital status, age and other characteristics. Wrapped around Juanita's waist, the researchers found, was a wide woven belt with tiny, intricate geometric designs characteristic of the Incas. Eventually, the scientists hope to compare the mummy's DNA with modern samples and establish which South American peoples are closely related to the Inca.

"She's a lovely child," says Guillen. Whatever good Juanita's early death brought to her people 500 years ago, she is already proving herself an even more precious treasure to archeologists today.