Unraveling the Enigma: Researcher Sheds Light on the Mystery of 3 Incan Children

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
July 3, 2023

Three Incan children offered to the gods more than five centuries ago ended their ceremonial pilgrimage in a sedated sleep until their lives slipped away.

Dr. Carlos Previgliano of Louisiana State University Health Shreveport is one of the researchers who pieced together the children’s final days through cautious but exhaustive exams. Previgliano made more 500 CT scans of the mummies after an archaeological expedition discovered them at Volcán Llullaillaco in northwestern Argentina in 1999.

Researcher helps unwrap mystery of 3 Incan children

“We didn’t see them when we did the CT scans because they were covered, but I also helped with the biopsies, and then I saw The Maiden’s face,” he said. “I was shocked. I was shocked for days because at that time, two of my children were those ages.

“For medicine, mummies are objects,” Previgliano said. “For us, because of their state (of preservation), we considered them children.”

Previgliano, a native of Argentina, had used CT scans only for the living until that point but was interested in helping researchers learn more about the children. The mummies are at The Museum of High Mountain Archeology in Salta, Argentina.

Researcher helps unwrap mystery of 3 Incan children The 13-year-old girl, nicknamed “The Maiden,” a 4- or 5-year-old boy and a 4- or 5-year-old girl were remarkably preserved because of the cold, dry air on the mountaintop. The younger girl’s body was burned when lightning struck her after her death. Scientists believe the younger girl’s metal headdress acted as a lightning rod.

The scans revealed a wealth of information initially, and improved technology is yielding more clues about the children’s lives and health. Now Niels Lynnerup, a faculty member at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, has developed new software that turns the CT data into 3D images.

Final Moments of Incan Child Mummies' Lives Revealed | Live Science Researchers, including Previgliano, recounted their findings in a paper published July 29 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The children were part of an Incan ritual in which families gave up their children as an offering to avert disasters. Some researchers believe the ritual was a form of social control.

Previgliano can’t imagine making that kind of choice in today’s world.

“I love Incas, but I love much more my children,” he said. “But at that time, for a parent to give their children was a great honor.”

After living in the Incan capital of Cuzco for a year or so, the children would travel to a sacred site. They were hit in the head, strangled or sedated and left to die from exposure.

“We ᴀssumed they had what we call ‘the white death,’ the peaceful death,” Previgliano said. “When you see a picture of The Maiden, it looks like a child sleeping.”

His scans showed The Maiden’s lungs were inflated before her death, indicating the children were alive when they were entombed. She also developed a sinus and chest infection in the days or weeks before the trio climbed to the spot near Llullaillaco’s summit.

The CT scans revealed a wad of coca leaves between The Maiden’s cheek and gum, the same place where people put smokeless tobacco. Investigators took hair samples to test for drugs and alcohol byproducts. The Maiden’s hair showed evidence that she ingested more coca leaves and alcohol toward the end of her life.

Whereabouts Lynnerup will represent Previgliano and others at the World Congress on Mummy Studies in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, this weekend. He’ll discuss the contents of the children’s stomachs, which indicates their final meal one to three hours before their deaths.

Other presenters will discuss everything from hardening of the arteries in ancient people to the Phillipi mummies, the preserved remains of two women who died at the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane in 1888.

The women in West Virginia are artificial mummies like those found in Egypt. Inventor Graham H. Hamrick experimented with preserving vegetables and small animals before using his secret formula to mummify the women’s bodies. The mummies are displayed at the Barbour County Historical Museum in Phillipi, W.Va.

Unlike Hamrick, ancient Egyptians used a scientific, ritualized process to embalm their ᴅᴇᴀᴅ. Dr. Eduardo Gonzalez Toledo, director of neuroradiology at LSU Health Shreveport, got an intimate glimpse of two Egyptian mummies in the late 1980s.

Gonzalez Toledo brought the first CT scanner to Argentina in the 1977. He decided to try CT scans on mummies at a Buenos Aires museum after seeing mummy X-rays at the British Museum in London. Workers hauled the mummies from the museum to a hospital with a CT scanner, creating some humorous moments

“They had the mummies in the elevator and the elevator stopped,” Gonzalez Toledo said. “They said, ‘It’s the curse of the mummy.’ ”

The first individual, a woman named Tadimentet, had intact bones, but the scans didn’t show much else. The second, an unnamed man, had multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood plasma.

Gonzalez Toledo also examined other mummies, including a child encased in clay, but these days, he focuses on the living with increasingly sophisticated MRIs.

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“I’m working on a project on brain trauma. We can discover old hemorrhages in the brain,” he said.

Previgliano also concentrates on patients in addition to teaching. CT scans show promise in helping detect early-stage lung cancer, he said.

He credits his work with mummies in broadening his horizons.

“I learned a lot about the Inca,” he said. “You have to understand the cultural context of things.”