Juanita

After another overnight bus journey (hopefully my last for this trip), I arrived in Arequipa, which is one of the largest cities in Peru but has a small centre with a lot of old colonial buildings. It’s one of the nicest places I’ve been so far, although it’s very touristy.

I headed out to the Museo Santuarios Andinos, which is a museum centred on a single mummy (albeit a pretty amazing one).

The story is that in 1995, a couple of archaeologists were climbing Mt Ampato to get a good view of the neighbouring volcano, Mt Sabancaya, which had been erupting since 1989 and throwing hugh amounts of ash into the air. Near the top, they saw a bit of textile and, on further investigation, found the mummy in question.

The mummy, known as Juanita, had been an Inca child sacrifice (there have been 18 child mummies found on mountains in Peru and Chile; the Incas thought mountains were powerful living beings who needed to be appeased, either on a regular 4 yearly basis or as and when there was a major event, such as a volcanic eruption, that they took to be a sign of the Gods’ displeasure). Mt Ampato normally has a permanent snow cap, but this had melted away due to the heat from the nearby eruption, and the mummy had tumbled out of its original burial place. Of all of the child mummies found, Juanita is by far the best preserved as she’s been frozen for the past 550 years (other burials were on active volcanoes, for example, where conditions would have been much warmer).

No photos were allowed in the museum, but here are a couple from the internet. Juanita is kept frozen (at temperature and humidity levels similar to those she would have had when buried) in a glass-sided cabinet.

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Technically speaking, Juanita isn’t a mummy as she has all her internal organs (whereas they mummified each Inca when he died so they could cart him round as if he hadn’t died, here presenting the sacrifice to the mountain was the main objective, rather than necessarily preserving the body). Modern science has done good work – Juanita was even taken to Johns Hopkins in the USA for all kinds of scans to be done. These revealed, for example, that Juanita died as a result of a whack to the head, fracturing her skull (from her outer condition, it had previously been thought that she might have just died from exposure or even been buried alive). She hadn’t eaten for quite a while before she died, which it is assumed may have been intentional so that the chicha (a fermented maize drink) she was given as a kind of sedative would have had greater effect.

The museum had a good video explaining all about the process. The children were chosen at birth (and their umbilical cords often buried with them). They were sacrificed by the age of 15. Juanita is supposed to have been between 12 and 14, although she’s tiny (about the size of a modern 8 year old). They would trek up the mountain (no mean feat; it’s over 6000m) carrying everything they needed for the trip as well as jars of chicha and all the offerings to go into the grave (ceramics, gold and silver figurines etc).

There’s a good bit in the video where the guy who found Juanita is shown crossing a ridiculously steep scree slope near the summit in all his modern climbing gear, then standing panting like crazy and explaining that the Incas were the world’s first true mountaineers as they’d been sauntering up mountains like that over 500 years ago, whereas many mountains in other countries of similar height and difficulty hadn’t been climbed until the 20th century.

It got even more amazing once I saw what they actually wore on their feet to do all that climbing; effectively house slippers with llama skin soles and alpaca uppers. The Inca equivalent of beach espadrilles……

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