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Frozen Asset

500-Year-Old Body of Sacrificed Girl Offers Unique Look at Inca Life

May 23, 1996|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 13-year-old girl was made to fast for several days, then dressed in her finest clothes, which were held in place by a bright silver pin, and taken to Nevado Ampato in the Peruvian Andes.

Despite a narcotic-induced calm, her fingers clutched nervously at her aksu, or body wrap, as she knelt at the frigid mountaintop, worshiping her god.

While she prayed, a priest struck her from behind with a heavy club, shattering her skull over her right eye. She was then buried sitting up, only to be discovered 500 years later by American archeologist Johan Reinhard.

Today, the girl, called Juanita by scientists, sits in state in Explorers' Hall at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., during a brief visit to the United States. Her body rests in a specially designed portable freezer that mimics the cold and dryness that kept it remarkably intact for five centuries on the desolate volcanic slopes, safely hidden from grave robbers and the ravages of decay.

Before her stop at National Geographic, Juanita was examined at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the first of a large number of studies scheduled to be performed on her frozen tissue over the next few years.

Her body will be prodded, poked and palpated, her DNA extracted and analyzed, and the contents of her stomach dissected as researchers explore the most definitive evidence ever of what life was like in South America in AD 1500, at the height of the Inca empire.

One team of researchers has even proposed fertilizing one or more of her eggs--if they are viable--and bringing them to term. The proposal has been rejected by Reinhard and his colleagues.

The team is moving carefully. "Juanita is such a challenge because there are no set rules as to how to work with a frozen body with 500-year-old textiles on it," said mummy specialist Sonia Guillen of the Mallqui Center in Ilo, Peru.

Juanita's discovery, along with that of two poorly preserved mummies nearby, has the potential to provide a wealth of information about the Inca empire, said Reinhard, a senior research fellow at the Mountain Institute in Franklin, W. Va., and a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. That empire once extended more than 2,500 miles, but ended after only 90 years when invading Spaniards unleashed a wave of violence and disease.

The mummies "are allowing us to discover archeologically what had only been discussed briefly in historical passages about the Inca," Reinhard said. "We're learning things about Inca religion and cosmology that will greatly help us to interpret other sites we have been studying for years."

"It's a discovery of worldwide importance," said archeologist Konrad Spindler, the Austrian scientist heading studies of the Iceman, a 5,000-year-old mummy discovered in the Alps. "She is much better preserved than the Iceman."

Juanita was accidentally discovered by Reinhard in September as he and climbing partner Miguel Zarate ascended 20,700-foot Nevado Ampato to view an ongoing volcanic eruption at nearby Nevado Sabancaya. "I had always wanted to see a volcano erupting up close," he writes in the June issue of National Geographic.

Ash and hot air from the volcano had melted the icecap and caused an avalanche atop Ampato, freeing Juanita's mummy from its resting place. Fortunately, all but her face was still encased in protective ice that preserved tissue, DNA and clothing. Reinhard backpacked the 85-pound body down from the mountain and took her on an overnight bus to Arequipa, where she was placed in a freezer at Catholic University.

A subsequent expedition up the mountain, financed and filmed by the National Geographic Society--to be shown on public television June 23--found the bodies of two younger sacrificial children in burial pits, surrounded by a variety of artifacts. Both pits had been struck by lightning, however, destroying virtually all body tissues, leaving behind only charred bone.

Meanwhile, the research team has been analyzing Juanita, her clothing and the artifacts found scattered around her.

The richly patterned, dazzling textiles she wore will serve as the model for future depictions of noble Inca women, Reinhard said. Some garments appear too big for her, he said, suggesting that perhaps the Inca perceived that she would exist in the afterlife as an adult.

She wore a boldly striped dress of fine alpaca wool as closely woven as that from modern machinery, according to textile expert William Conklin of the National Gallery of Art. The dress was encircled by a belt, and her white-trimmed, burgundy-and-gold shawl was held in place by a silver pin.

Her pigtail was tied to her waistband by a thread of black alpaca, indicating that she was dressed by others, either before or after her death. Silver shawl pins fastened her clothing. Attached to these pins were threads hung with miniature wooden carvings--a box, two drinking vessels and what looks like a dog or fox. She was shod in leather slippers.

Interestingly, a small doll found near her was dressed virtually identically--although it wore a feather headdress, while Juanita did not. The doll may have represented an Inca goddess, Reinhard speculates, and the girl, who could have been deified through her sacrificial death, was dressed in a manner befitting her place in the spirit world.

*

Dr. Elliot Fishman and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins produced 670 CT scans of the body and concluded that she was killed by the blow to the head that crushed her skull over her right eye. A displacement of her brain indicated intracranial bleeding, which was probably the ultimate cause of death. She could have been alive, but unconscious, for several hours after the blow.

The CT scans of her bones showed that she was in good health, with no obvious signs of malnutrition, Fishman said. And, he said, "She had the best set of teeth that I have seen in some time."

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