Ancient sacrificed children studied for infection

July 28, 2012 • 5:24 am

In the past 500 years, humanity has come a long distance in the way we treat children, women, animals, those of other faiths, and members of other cultures; see Steve Pinker’s superb new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for the documentation.  A graphic example of this progress comes from a new paper in PLoS ONE by Angelique Corthals et al. (free download). It’s about infections in children ritually sacrificed by the Incas.

In 1999, a group of archaeologists discovered the preserved bodies of three children near the summit of a high volcano in Argentina.  Dating back about five centuries, they included a 6-year old girl, a 7-year old boy, and a 15-year old girl.  All of them had been sacrificed to the gods by the horrible practice of capacocha, as described by Wikipedia:

Capacocha was the Inca practice of human sacrifice, mainly using children. The Incas performed child sacrifices during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca (emperor) or during a famine. Children were selected as sacrificial victims as they were considered to be the purest of beings. These children were also physically perfect and healthy, because they were the best the people could present to their gods. The victims may be as young as 6 and as old as 15.

Months or even years before the sacrifice pilgrimage, the children were fattened up. Their diets were those of the elite, consisting of maize and animal proteins. They dressed the children in fine clothing and jewelry and escorted them to Cuzco to meet the emperor where a feast was held in their honor. More than 100 precious ornaments were found to be buried with these children in the burial site.

The Incan high priests took the victims to high mountaintops for sacrifice. As the journey was extremely long and arduous, especially so for the younger victims, coca leaves were fed to them to aid them in their breathing so as to allow them to reach the burial site alive. Upon reaching the burial site, the children were given an intoxicating drink to minimize pain, fear, and resistance, then killed them either by strangulation, a blow to their head or by leaving them to lose consciousness in the extreme cold and die of exposure.

The bodies had been exceptionally well preserved over five centuries because they were buried 20 cm underground in freezing temperatures, and the tombs packed with volcanic ash and covered with compacted snow.

Here are three photos taken from the paper; the caption is “a) La Doncella (the Maiden); b) El Niño (the Boy); and c) La Niña (the Girl)”.  The Maiden was the 15-year old, and the one studied for infection. Her hair is finely braided. You’ll find these pictures ineffably moving; they look just like children from modern Peru:

Child sacrifice was not rare in pre-Columbian cultures. Here’s a description of an equally noxious practice of some Aztecs:

Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.

At any rate, the PLoS One paper involved an analysis of blood samples and mouth swabs of the mummies using “proteomics,” the practice of isolating proteins from body fluids and identifying them by mass spectrometry. I won’t describe the complicated procedure, which you can read about here, but the aim was to see whether the children carried infections (the youngest girl wasn’t sampled as her body had apparently been struck by lightning).  There were preliminary signs that the older girl was indeed ill; as the paper notes:

Computed tomography (CT) scanning and radiological examinations of the Maiden revealed that all her organs, including the eyes and the brain, were intact. Both radiological and visual examination revealed pathologies consistent with a range of infectious diseases: 1) a radiolucent area in the upper lobe of the right lung, 2) a mucosal enlargement of the left maxillary sinus consistent with sinusitis, 3) a zoster-like lesion on the right calf, and 4) streaks of mucus under both nostrils.

The proteomic analysis showed several proteins in the Maiden (but not the boy) consistent with infection: proteins produced by the body to fight off microbes.  Several of these indicated a pretty severe inflammation of the lungs, presumably by mycobacteria.  This was confirmed by finding proteins from the Mycobacterium itself. Since Mycobacterium tuberculosis is one of the causes of tuberculosis, it’s possible that, even at age 15, she’d already contracted TB.

The question here may seem narrow, but does have broader implications, particularly in investigating via proteomics what diseases afflicted ancient people.  Proteins can last a lot longer than DNA, and are less subject to contamination, so looking at the proteins of both pathogen and host (i.e., those proteins involved in the host’s immune response) can tell us about the health of our ancestors.  The authors also note that the technique can help identify the state of infection from analysis of blood in modern criminal cases, which I suppose can sometimes be useful.

But what stays with me after having read the paper are the photos of the children, needlessly slaughtered—as were so many adults—in the name of a nonexistent deity. Religion has poisoned everything for a long time.


Corthals A, Koller A, Martin DW, Rieger R, Chen EI, et al. (2012) Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy. PLoS ONE 7(7): e41244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041244

35 thoughts on “Ancient sacrificed children studied for infection

  1. “Religion has poisoned everything for a long time.”

    Yes, but they’ve gone from killing children, to raping them. This probably seems like progress from their point of view. Although some of them still kill them, by not giving them modern medicine.

    Then we have preachers who promote beating your children into submission, or psychologically mistreating them. The indoctrination into the religion, with all the guilt and low self-esteem in itself is child abuse. One of religions major attributes is to target the weakest. They suck.

    1. Don’t kid yourself. Rape isn’t a new phenomenon. And “age of consent” is a relatively modern concept (hell “consent” is a relatively modern concept).

      Just because they didn’t call it rape and no one was outraged by it doesn’t mean they weren’t doing it. It just means that people thought it was normal (like human sacrifice was once normal) and now it isn’t. Which IS progress.

      1. Aren’t you the one kidding yourself here, trying to normalize violence and oppression of the weak? Should we look for a certain dividing year when it was “normal praxis, so healthy and beneficial”? Further, I doubt bonobos have a rape culture, so who knows what is normal for our species?

        If not secular morals had become influential, the churches and their members had still officially supported such horrendous practices.

        And that they continue to do so is as horrible as other offenders doing the same.

        1. …trying to normalize violence and oppression of the weak? Should we look for a certain dividing year when it was “normal praxis, so healthy and beneficial”?

          I certainly didn’t draw that impression from what he wrote – and Jer said nothing about rape being “beneficial”! I think you read something into it that wasn’t there.

          1. Just a note: I recently read that only in 1986 did the United States Supreme Court allow wives to bring their husbands up on charges of rape. Until then, her “I do” gave him full legal ownership of her body, with all rights and access, as though she were not a full fledged human being. 1986!

            1. In the dirty south, you’ll still be hard pressed to encounter any form of law enforcement which will actually assist a woman document/prosecute/convict her husband of rape.
              I have two children who are the product of marital rape. In NC you can press charges of battery, but marital rape isn’t acknowledged by the judicial system as an offense.

              1. Sorry to hear that happened to you. Wish I oould say I was surprised. I’m from Richmond, VA, close enough to understand. It all gets swept under the rug.

    2. Don’t forget that the aiding and abetting Pedophile Church has also been found to aid and abetting human trafficking all over the world. Recently Argentine senior officials from their military juntas has been convicted of kidnaping babies from undesired parents and pawn them off on Catholic parents including (AFAIK) influence-peddling rings with more or less likely church support.

      Now the similar Spanish baby trafficking during their juntas, where the catholic church seems to have been openly involved, has proceeded to court.

      As of yet single proven cases of kidnapping with no convictions, but as many as 300 000 babies may have been trafficked. If there are more proven cases, or if they can find that church ad of the Pilar case, or if the Franco regime constituted a specific law, there was a systematic mafia action on human trafficking of babies.

      It could happen that eventually we will have to rename it the Mafia Church of Pedophilia and Human Trafficking.

  2. Yes, religion does poison everything. But sometimes it makes for some really interesting archaeology.

  3. In the past 500 years, humanity has come a long way in the way we treat children,

    Not as far as you think.

    Human child sacrifice is still practiced in the USA. By the fundie xians, of course.

    1. Around 100 children a year are killed by their parents and church in a ritual known as “faith healing”. This is common enough that some families have killed two children this way.

    2. Sometimes children are killed in a torture-murder ritual known as “raising up children.”

    They don’t call it human child sacrifice but that is exactly what it is.


      She was regularly spanked and locked in a closet, and was forced to sleep in a barn and take garden-hose showers outside, according to an affidavit from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. The affidavit was based on information from the couple’s six natural children, another adopted child, medical experts and other family and friends. The interviews were conducted by detectives and investigators from the state’s Child Protective Services.

      In 2009, Hana weighed 108 pounds, but over the past two years of her life, she lost 30 pounds, largely because her parents denied her food as punishment, the affidavit says. She was so thin she couldn’t retain enough heat May 12, the night she died. She had been outside with no clothes and died of hypothermia, an autopsy found.

      On the backs of her legs were marks consistent with being beaten earlier in the day, the affidavit alleges.

      Here is one example of fundie xian child sacrifice by torture-murder. There have been at least two others known. As horrible as this description is, the reality was actually worse.

      At least 2 other recent cases are known.

      The number of fundie child sacrifices by “faith healing” or “training” isn’t too well known. Most of them are aware that it looks bad to the neighbors when they kill their kids and can result in legal problems so they try to hide it any way they can.

    2. This just in: Ft Meade, MD, is holding a religion based marriage workshop by folks who promote child abuse. Inside this,, was this: You’ll love the part where US tax dollars are paying for this, and out of Department of
      Defense funding, too.

  4. Does anyone know if the archeologists have been able to determine when these children were MURDERED (as opposed to “died”), +/- 50 to 100 years?

    Why do Abraham and Isaac come to mind?

    1. Q: When did you stop sacrificing your children?

      A: As soon as we could afford the neighbours’ kids instead.

      1. OMG, modern militaristic translation! Same Q, new A: “As soon as we could convince the gullible poor that military service would provide a free education and great, rich future! About Viet Nam era and, with much tweeking to replace the draft, later.”

  5. I my Spanish class, I recently read an amusing and instructive story, “Chac Mool”, by Carlos Fuentes. It is a commentary on the much discussed obsession with “identity” in Latin American culture. The Chac Mool was a sacrificial statue that served as a podium on which the Aztecs placed gifts to various gods, including the hearts of sacrificial victims. In Fuentes’ story, the statue serves as an impersonation of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain and thunder. In researching the background of this story I read a fascinating book, “City of Sacrifice: the Aztec empire, or city-state, and the role of violence in civilization.” by Davíd Carrasco, a professor of the history of religion at Princeton, who demonstrates the overwhelming and breathtaking role of religious violence in the urbanization of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital (now engulfed within Mexico City). The frequency and scale of human sacrifice described in this book is truly astounding, but not surprising, as it was based on a cosmology which attributed to their gods an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Fuentes’ comment on this book, quoted on the back cover, is that “We know that power, whatever its origin – sacred, natural, ethnic, contractual, or democratic – is an expression of violence. Davíd Carrasco now demonstrates a shattering, unsentimental truth: civilizations themselves are born and maintained by violence.” I am not sure I would subscribe to such an inclusive dark vision of all civilization. I do urge people who have the time to read this engrossing book, as it also a good example of the research methods of historians and ethno-archaeologists.

    1. Human sacrifice of one form or another was a widespread practice in most if not all prehistoric cultures, including prehistoric Europe, Ancient Mesopotamia and early China, and its presence all over the Americas should not surprise anybody. The Aztecs were admittedly rather inventive and, in our eyes, quite monstrous in their practice of human sacrifice: I always found one ritual in honor of Xipe Totec, god of agriculture and fertility, quite disturbing, given that the priest would wear the victim’s flayed skin for days after the sacrifice.

      That said, the accounts of thousands and even tens of thousands of victims killed in single ritual events should be taken with a grain of salt. It was after all in the Aztecs’ interest, for reasons of political and military propaganda, to exaggerate their ferocity, as well as in the interest of the invading Spaniards to depict the Aztecs in the worst light possible so as to morally justify their conquests.

      As for European indignation when faced with Aztec or Inka human sacrifice, the hypocrisy is quite staggering when one considers the equally long tradition of torture and execution in name of religion practiced by everyone in the Old World, not just by the notorious Spanish inquisition. I mean, the English practice of hanging, drawing and quartering is rather more vicious than most prehispanic practices.

      1. I have not pursued a critical evaluation of the estimates of Aztec sacrificial victim numbers available in the literature accessible on the web. It seems that most historians agree that the numbers were large. To be sure, the various 20th century holocausts may eclipse previous levels in any society, if only because of the technology available. It seems pointless to attempt to evaluate the levels of cruelty practiced in different cultures. Suffice it to say that, in human history, religions have always been sources of cruel practices and have been frequently unwilling or timorous about doing something to stop them.

        1. Rather than “holocaust”, the more correct term is “genocide.” “Holocaust” from “holo”, meaning whole, and “caust”, meaning to burn. It was specifcially coined after WWII to refer to the Nazi goal to completely butn Jews out of existance, not only by killing but by methodically incinerating their bodies in huge, specially built ovens. “Genocide” should be used when there are no such ovens.

  6. This post is bizarrely synchronous with my having watched the ballet “Rite of Spring” last night, which makes it all look more exciting that I suspect it was.

  7. If Incas were still around, would we allow them to practice their religion in the name of religious freedom?

    1. Well we still allow children to be mutilated in the name of religious freedom, culture or tradition.

      1. The big three – Aztec, Inca, and Maya – all have surviving populations.

        The civilizations died, but not the people.

  8. The best book out there on Inka human sacrifice is Thomas Besom’s Of Summits and Sacrifice. It deals with the ethnohistorical evidence, which correlates very well with the archaeological evidence (like this).

    It’s true that pre-Columbian civilizations practiced human sacrifice, but so did many other civilizations. Human sacrifice was prevalent in Hawai’i until the early nineteenth century, and slaves and children were pummeled beneath house-posts when building a house in parts of eastern Indonesian into the twentieth century. But human sacrifice was also practiced in Rome, and by the Germanic tribes north of the Roman empire, including the victors of the battle of the Teutoborg forest in 9 CE, if Roman accounts are to be believed. It was taken to extremes in Hawai’i, Mesoamerica, highland South America, and parts of West Africa, but it’s something that, perhaps surprisingly, has been found around the world.

    Inka sacrifice was very different to that in Mesoamerica. The templo mayor in Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital) was a public site – sacrifices were public, attended by a mass of ritual and sporting events, and often involved the sacrifice of captives in war. The warrior who had captured the victim would forge a strong relationship with him before the sacrifice, and would daub the victim’s blood on statues of the gods throughout the city on the day of the sacrifice. It was public, violent, male, and bloody.

    By contrast, the Inka sacrifices took place outside of cities – on mountaintops, as with these victims. The victims were young boys or virginal girls, forced into nunnery-like institutions where they fasted from chilli, salt, meat, and sex. They were selected from villages throughout the Inka empire, and most were the most beautiful girls in the village. They were taken to Cuzo, the capital, never to see their families again, before being distributed across the empire and taken alone into the mountains, where they would be killed, often bloodlessly. A very different procedure to the Aztec.

    I hope this comment isn’t too long. I find the subject quite fascinating, having read a lot about it as an anthropology graduate student in Oxford.

    1. Human sacrifice may be a fascinating subject, but I see it even more as a stark reminder of the depths of depravity in which faith and belief so easily plunge human beings. It is the perfect counterexample to offer those who claim that religion deserves respect a priori. Respect always needs to be earned.

      1. Oh yes, I quite agree. I’m not a fan of human sacrifice. But the subject is nonetheless fascinating, and it isn’t a good idea to moralise it for academic purposes.

        Oops, correction: Cuzco, not “Cuzo”, was capital of the Inka empire.

  9. Greetings,

    The article raises questions about the health of the average Incan.

    If these children, who were – by all accounts – taken good care of, nevertheless were prone to such a slew of diseases, as “The Maiden” appears to have suffered, how much more prone to disease were those who were not well-fed?

    How were children chosen?

    One-too-many mouths to feed for a family? The healthiest/unhealthiest? The most “beautiful”? By lottery?

    Kindest regards,


    1. According to historical accounts (which, although written in Spanish, are not to be considered necessarily biased, as some were written to defend the native Peruvians against Spanish slander), victims of the qhapaq kucha were pretty maidens – the most beautiful virgins in the villages. But of course, archaeological and ethnohistorical data don’t always perfectly cohere, and there might have been a variety of other variables. Unfortunately, the nature of the evidence and the fact that none of the large South American civilizations left anything in the way of written evidence until after the Spanish conquest mean that what those variables were is a mystery.

      As for the health of the average person in the Inka empire – I assume it would have been similar to the health of the average person living in an agricultural society before the nineteenth century. ie, generally poor, with vitamin deficiencies and dental caries. IANA expert, though.

  10. Nothing like reading an article on the blood sacrifice to really piss me off on a Sunday evening. I truly hope human beings can get past it in the next few thousand years.

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