London: Mummies of three children used as ritual sacrifices by the centuries-old Inca civilisation show they were fed a significant amount of drugs and alcohol for months to hasten their deaths, researchers say.
The long and tightly-braided hair of a 13-year old girl, whose frozen body was found near the summit of Volcan Llullaillaco, a mountain on the Chile/Argentina border, has provided researchers from the University of Bradford with new insights into the Inca capacocha ritual.
The team carried out biochemical analysis of the girl`s hair which shows the extent to which drugs and alcohol were used as part of the Inca ritual and in the final months and weeks of her life.
The `Llullaillaco Maiden`, was buried 500 years ago just below the 6,739m summit.
Two other younger children, a 6-year old girl and 7-year old boy were found in separate graves near the Maiden.
Scientists looked for three markers in the hair: two which showed consumption of cocaine from coca leaves and one which showed consumption of coca and alcohol together.
The analyses showed that all three children had ingested both coca and alcohol, with the Maiden - who was found with chewed coca leaves in her mouth - ingesting consistently higher levels than the two younger individuals.
The Maiden`s consumption of coca went up sharply twelve months before her death, and then peaked again six months before her death, where her consumption was almost three times higher than earlier levels.
Lead researcher Dr Andrew Wilson compared the findings with historical accounts produced by the Spanish, dating from the Colonial period, to draw conclusions from the data.
"We think it`s likely the Maiden was selected for sacrifice 12 months before her death, after which her treatment changed, corresponding to the sharp increase in coca consumption," said Wilson.
"She was then probably involved in a series of rituals, involving consumption of coca and alcohol, in the build up to her sacrifice, which kept consumption at a steady level. Both substances were controlled, were considered elite products and held ritual significance for the Inca," said Wilson.
"At the altitude the children were found, death by exposure is inevitable. There was no evidence of physical violence to the children, but the coca and alcohol are likely to have hastened their deaths," he said.
The team`s conclusions are confirmed by the position in which the Maiden was found, seated cross-legged, with her head slumped forward and her arms resting loosely on her lap, her headdress intact and the artifacts around her undisturbed.
The researchers believe she was placed in the burial chamber whilst heavily sedated, her position carefully arranged and the artifacts placed around her.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).