A terrible Inca ritual’s 500-year-old corpse named Juanita

It was like a massive baseball bat hit to the skull. The Inca shaman, who in this case also acted as an executioner, made a strong swing and did not hesitate for a moment. The head of the minor victim of the ceremonial execution, to the glory of the great deities, jumped back sharply under the blow of the blunt. The skull cracked like an egg shell and its interior filled with blood. The girl sentenced to death was not afraid, did not beg for mercy or cried. She was probably so drunk and stuffed with hallucinogens that she hadn’t even realized that her life had just ended …


For peoples whose lives depend on fertile crops, natural disasters are a harbinger of famine, and thus – a harbinger of a tragedy that could call into question the fate of the tribe. For the Incas, powerful rulers of a huge empire who, until the arrival of the Spanish stray, ruled the territories of modern Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina, one such misfortune could be, for example, a volcanic eruption.Awakened by the gods, the colossus spat lava, coughed thick smoke and … caused nasty climatic anomalies. The inhabitants of the area of today’s Arequipa knew perfectly well that after such an event, the coming years would be extremely dry and that the gods should be begged for grace. Of course, we now know that neither the luminous Inti nor the Pachamama upset with her human children was responsible for this phenomenon, but the presence of solid particles in the air. Many studies have shown that after a volcanic eruption for up to 5 long years in a given region, there may be a tendency to drastically reduce the frequency of precipitation, and even to regular drought.

So when the Ampato volcano, rising to a height of 6,288 meters above sea level, located on the rim of the deepest canyon in the world (Colca), became the next candidate after Misti and Sabancaya to shoot hot magma, the Inca priests decided that something had to be done to prevent more the calamities of the crop failure and the suffering of the people chosen by the Sun. So the wise men gathered to prepare a sensible rescue plan. The council probably did not last too long and all priests decided that the best solution would be the so-called capacocha (in Quechua, the Inca language that exists to this day – Qhapaq hucha), i.e. a real commitment to the strict gods to serve as a form of begging for invisible, but for some reason very dissatisfied beings, pity for the human species.

This ceremony was, in practice, nothing more than human sacrifice. And surely, from the point of view of the rulers of the empire, the best solution would be to kill a village idiot, a hunchbacked, ailing old man, who is of little use, or a neighbor indicated by the local community, which allegedly maintains unhealthy relations with lamas. But would such a sacrifice satisfy the grumpy gods? Well, it would probably make them even more angry. So the idea of capacocha was completely different. Children were to serve as victims of this cruel ceremony. And it is so selected, healthy, pretty, devoid of any physical blemishes. In this case, the gods wanted the girl dead.

Juanita, because that was the name that archaeologists gave the unfortunate teenager, probably came, like all female victims of this ritual, from a monastery for the so-called virgins of the sun – chosen for their beauty, origin, intelligence and talent, perfectly educated girls, separated from society by a thick wall of an Inca monastery. DNA research indicates that Juanita was born around 1440-1450 AD, during the reign of the ninth ruler of the Pachacuti empire, and came from the Ngöbe tribe – quite far from the borders of Tawantinsuyu, because they live near modern Panama. Many elements of Juanita’s genetic code, however, were similar to those found in the peoples of the Andes along virtually all of their length. There are some theories that a child may have originatedfrom a high-ranking family belonging to the most privileged noble caste.

Juanita, accompanied by priests, first had to trek to the capital of the empire – Cusco, where she was ceremonially anointed by the great Inca and paid tribute to four great statues representing the highest Inca gods, and then went on a pilgrimage to the place of her honorable death. As was the custom, the future victim had to abide in abundance. Her health, good meals and a stable mental state were taken care of. In the case of infants, which the Incas also sometimes gave “as gifts” to their gods, his mother went on a journey with such a child, breastfeeding her child. In the case of Juanita, however, there was no such need – it is estimated that the girl was about 12-14 years old.



The summit of the Ampato volcano, mentioned above, was designated to the place of the execution and eternal rest of the child, where the future victim had to reach on foot accompanied by a retinue of priests and their helpers. Subsequent cadaver examinations showed that Juanita for the last 6-8 weeks of her life had eaten mostly vegetables washed down with large amounts of alcohol (probably chicha – a fermented corn drink) and plants with potent narcotic properties. At the time of his death, the victim also consumed a considerable amount of coca – the leaves of the common dwarf tree, a plant that is still almost religiously worshiped by Andean peoples.

The moment she took a hard blow with a blow that made the baby’s skull crack around the right eye socket, leaving a five-centimeter hole behind and filling herself with blood, Juanita was either unconscious or so intoxicated with the drugs administered to her that she probably didn’t even have time to register her last moments. As a result of the punch inflicted on her by the priest, the child’s brain shifted to one side of the skull. Death was immediate.

The corpse was wrapped in beautiful, colorful funeral fabrics (aksu), a headband with parrot feathers was put on the head of the dead girl, and an alpaca wool shawl was wrapped around her neck. Other gifts for the gods were also left behind the child’s body – bowls, pins, shells, and even tiny figurines typical of this type of rituals, dressed in miniature clothes – identical to those worn by Juanita.

All these items were found in perfect condition after more than 500 years. Just like the deceased herself. Come on, let’s say. Although the mortal remains of the victim of a cruel ritual are today considered one of the best-preserved Inca corpses, it must be honestly admitted that the “tooth of time” had a bad impact on… Juanita’s head. And the most ironic thing is that the main factor contributing to the less representative appearance of the girl’s upper body was not the half-millennium that the girl spent in the cold, but the last 15 days before the discovery of the body!

In 1995, a group of explorers led by John Reinhard of the National Geographic Society decided to investigate the impact of the eruption of another nearby volcano, Sabancaya, on the snow cover of Ampato. As expected by the researchers, it turned out that the high temperature led to the dissolution of a large layer of ice. Thus, Juanita emerged from her “grave” and … fell into the crater.



Reinhard probably regrets to this day that his expedition had not started two weeks earlier. Then he would find the girl’s body on the top of Ampato, and her body would probably be as perfect as the victims of the Inca capacocha ceremonies found in Argentina.

Juanita was less fortunate – she fell from a height of 200 meters, and during her flight, she lost the fabrics covering her head. Then she lay at the bottom of the volcano for 15 days, with her face exposed to the sun’s rays. These two weeks were enough for Juanita’s noble face to lose most of its charm forever.

Today, watching the most famous Inca mummy locked in a glass freezer (although this name is wrong, because it is a frozen corpse, not a dried stiff), visitors to one of the most famous museums in the Peruvian city of Arequipa are not able to see it hidden under colorful fabrics and a layer of ice of Juanita’s perfectly preserved body.Fortunately, there is documentation of the examination of the body, so we can see what the deceased looks like, who spent the last 500 years in the biting frost.



They are in such good condition that it was possible to take a blood sample and examine the stomach contents. Meanwhile, in the photo above, you can see the fat that had precipitated out of Juanita’s body.



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