Saturday, May 22, 2004

On the second day in Arequipa, we went to the musuem which houses the famous "Juanita", aka the "Ice Maiden" - the 13-year old Incan girl scarificed at the summit of the 6300m Ampato volcano and then preserved in ice for 500 years. In 1995 erupting smoke from a nearby volcano melted the ice cap and an archeological expedition found her and accompanying objects tipped out of their summit grave and sent a few hundred metres down the mountainside by the volcanic tremors. The visit to the museum was an hour long, involving a twenty-minute National Geographic video and a forty-minute guided tour through exhibits of various objects found with Juanita and other sacrificed children (to date eighteen have been discovered on mountaintops from Ecuador to Chile), then finally Juanita herself, housed in a glass case chilled to -20 degrees, hair, teeth and skin largely preserved, huddled in a sitting position and wrapped in a frozen blanket.

Lonely Planet describes the whole presentation as "somewhat reverential", which I would say is an understatement. The tour around the exhibits was ok, as the girl who took us was quite matter of fact, but the video, in reconstructing Juanita's last journey, made it sound as if it was the most wonderful privilege, as if someone had organised her a special birthday party. How do I convey the tone of it? Well for one thing, the word "sacrificio" was off limits - all the discussion was of an "ofrenda" (offering), anda woman at the front desk corrected me when I asked a question about the "sacrifice". As was pointed out both in the video and by the guide, the children "offered" on mountaintops were considered "chosen". Of aristocratic blood, they were brought up in Cuzco, lived with Incan priests from an early age, and grew up believing in their special calling. The Incan gods were belived to live in the mountains and volcanoes, and while offerings of artefacts were routinely made, live humans were reserved for times of difficulty and hardship, when it was thought that the gods needed to be placated.

From the artefacts found with Juanita, which included seashell necklaces, it is thought that she was sacrificed during a time of drought. Although remains have been found on mountaintops throughout the former Inca empie, the current theory is that all the sacrificed children were chosen acolytes from Cuzco, who were sent, often on very long and arduous journeys to the troubled spots. Sort of like a sacred and sacrifical SWAT team. Such chosen children would have believed, apparently, that upon their physical death they would pass to the other side and join the gods, themselves becoming gods.

The reality for Juanita is that she was a little girl who had to fast for a couple of weeks before the big day, then trekked hundreds of kilometres and up to the summit of a 6300-metre volcano (given the available clothing and equipment, an impressive physical feat for all involved), was given chicha and hallucinogens then, already half-dead from cold and exhaustion, was whacked over the head with a spiked mallet and bundled into a shallow grave along with some vases, blankets, dolls and bags of coca leaves. It had previously been imagined that she had been left there to let the cold usher her gently into the next realm. However, tests run at John Hopkins University established the rather cruder reality of the cause of death. With the benefit of this information, you can see the two notches in the side of her skull and note the partially collapsed eye socket where the blow fell.

The video interspersed comments from the archeologists with a reenactment of Juanita's last hours (accompanied by taciturn Inca nobles trudging up through the mist and silently performing ceremonies, leaving out the bit with the hammer). The female voice-over surged in tones of ecstatic awe as it reiterated how Juanita believed she was doing a great service to the nation and herself heading off to join the gods. Even on the face of the young actress in the reenactment, however, there were clear signs of suppressed terror. Maybe, like me, she couldn't help imagining what it would really have been like. I felt a few tears coming to my eyes as the voice-over waxed lyrical about the personal glory of becoming such an "offering". Quite an Orwellian moment.

Afterwards, Magdalena, a Swiss girl who had been on the tour with me, had a different thought. Why, she wondered, speaking about the eighteen bodies which have now been found, didn't they just leave them there? If the intention was that the dead children were gifts to the mountain, and we are so au fait with and understanding about that cultural practice, why do we insist on dragging them off the mountainside. The answer that occurred to me was that the Inca religon involved human sacrifice on mountaintops. Our religon is science, and museums are its temples, where other values tend to be sacrificed. Perhaps in the future people will find that quirkily barbaric as well.

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