Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Braids break their silence

Several years ago, I went to the National Geographic Society to hear American archaeologist and explorer-in-residence Johan Reinhard describe his 1999 discovery of the Llullaillaco Maiden and her 2 younger companions just below the summit of the 22,110' (6,739 m) Andean mountain after which she is named. The 15-year-old, whose well-preserved mummy I had already seen, had been sacrificed by the Inca. An earlier DNA and chemical study had found that the Maiden's diet had improved dramatically during the year before her death, during which she had been fed maize and possibly llama meat. Now her hair has revealed that she was also increasingly sedated during that time. She consumed both coca (a wad of which she still had clenched in her teeth) and a fermented brew called chicha. While other Inca sacrificial victims show evidence of violence, including cranial trauma, the children of Llullaillaco did not have to be killed with such force. "Either they got it right, in terms of perfecting the mechanisms of performing this type of sacrifice, or these children went much more quietly," says forensic and archaeological expert Andrew Wilson of the University of Bradford, who performed the testing. He adds, "For me it's almost like the children are able to reach out to us to tell us their own stories. Hair, especially, is such a personal thing, and here it's able to provide some compelling evidence and tell us a very personal story even after five centuries."

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