The Ice Princess
Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
273Trip End Oct 08, 2008
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Our first priority was to see Juanita, the Ice Princess. Let me tell you the story of Juanita.
Hundreds of years ago, when the Inca Empire was strong and powerful, it believed that the gods were the mountains, and it read signs of the anger of the gods in nature. Thus, when the cockel-type shell off the coast had a red edge with a white inside, it meant the gods were angered, and a sacrifice was required. Children from all over the empire were gathered for selection in Cusco, and only the most beautiful, innocent, and perfect child would be chosen for the honor of going to live with the gods. Juanita, a 14-year-old girl from Puno or Bolivia (revealed by DNA test), was chosen for sacrifice. She had unblemished skin, perfect teeth, beautiful, shining black hair, and the innocence and purity of childhood. She was also a virgin. That was important.
With the child sacrifice selected, the festivals surrounding sacrifice began. 100-150 llamas and alpacas were sacrificed, and other celebrations to honor the gods went on. Then Juanita, along with important priests and leaders (Cusco was, of course, the capital of the Inca Empire), began the long trek to Arequipa. The whole journey was done on foot (by bus the trip is an overnight hike - 7-8 hours), and when the group arrived at Arequipa, there were more celebrations before the group began its climb up Ampato Volcano. This was a journey that a girl like Juanita would never have made before - she was venturing into the realm of the gods. Although there was a great deal of coca leaf chewing, Juanita would have succumbed to the altitude and also been quite cold. She was therefore already near death when the sacrifice occurred.
Only royalty and other nobles-priests could wear dyed wool, and only they could wear vicuņa wool (it is still the most expensive in the world, with a vicuņa wool scarf selling for $1200). The average person would wear only undyed llama or alpaca wool. Thus, to denote her importance, Juanita was garbed in clothing befitting royalty. Her shawl was, like the Peruvian flag (although apparently this is only a coincidence), two red panels with a white panel in between. The white symbolized innocence and purity, while the red symbolized strength and fertility. For the warmer part of her journey she wore only woven sandals, but for the climb up the mountain she was given special shoes made of llama leather soles and wool tops.
At the summit of Ampato the priests would begin their rituals. Juanita would have been nervous about her death, but also resolved and honored that she was chosen to be her people's representative to the gods. After the rituals, Juanita was given a potent drink that would put her to sleep. Then, with one exact blow above her right eye, she would be killed. Scientists discovered that the cause of death was internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma, but initially she was thought to have frozen to death. (Thank you Johns Hopkins and MRI machines)
After Juanita was dead, the priests bundled her into the fetal position and set her facing east, to prepare her for her next life. She was placed in a hole along with many offerings - food, corn, coca, and small gold, silver and copper llamas and vicuņas, which symbolized the sacrifices that occurred in Cusco. There was also a small gold representation of Juanita herself, resplendent in the finest Inca clothing.
Juanita was discovered accidentally in 1995 by anthropologist Johann Reinhard, who was climbing Ampato in search of Inca artifacts. Juanita had rolled down from her grave and was lying 500 feet down the mountain. Because of this exposure, her right side is less well preserved than her left. Otherwise she is a perfectly preserved frozen corpse. Had she lain where she was another week, she would have begun to decompose. It is important to note that she is not a mummy because she is not dried and her internal organs have not been removed. She is kept in a slightly humid 15 degree F freezer to prevent further decomposition. Essentially she is a 500-year-old human popsicle.
On display at the museum (which is associated with the university in Arequipa and works in cooperation with Hopkins), is not only the Ice Princess herself, but all her clothes and sacrifices from her grave. Her clothing was painstakingly removed by a group of Arequipa scientists who only worked at night to better preserve the body. It was cleaned and is now visible to the somewhat astounded visitor. The most interesting piece discovered in her grave was a plain handkerchief that held her umbilical cord. The Incas believed that the umbilical cord was healthful, so after a baby was born it was saved and dried. Then, when the child became terribly sick, a piece of the cord would be cut off, powdered, and placed in the child's food. The earliest stem-cell action known to humans.
Juanita herself was incredible. Her hair is still a glossy black pulled into a pony-tail, and her skin is a leathery brown. She is nothing like the mummies we have seen in the past. She seems almost alive in her perfect preservation. Only the right side of her face and her upper lip are slightly decayed due to the sun exposure when she rolled down the mountain. She is only on display for half the year, the other half she is in a scientific lab for research.
A few years ago the team that discovered Juanita returned to Ampato in search of further artifacts. They found two more bodies. One of a 6-year-old boy and another of an 8-year-old girl, also sacrifices to the mountain. Their tombs were perfectly preserved and shed more light on the practices and sacrifices of the Inca people.
Especially interesting fact: There were many plates in the graves with representations of ducks on them. Ducks were very important to the Inca because they could fly, walk, and swim. Their flight indicated commune with the gods in the heavens. Their walking indicated life of the people on the land. Their swimming indicated commune with the underworld.
This was, I think, one of the more surreal experiences of our trip, but it was very interesting and educational and I think we would not have missed it.