In a dim cave just outside of modern Cuzco, our guide pointed out three tiny holes at the bottom of a steep, roped-off pit. Here, he told us, several babies had been buried alive as a sacrifice to the gods. Archeologists had removed the tiny bones and were examining them now at a separate location. All that remained were the dark pits. It was at this point a horrified man from the United States reacted with the innocent question:
“Was it just better that the Spanish came in and stopped all this?”
To state the obvious: Burying babies and young children alive is a pretty horrible thing to do – god, gods, or no god. The Incas have apparently become well known for this rare practice too, since our guides were quick to inform us we would not be seeing any mummies or bones. In this cave, though, our guide did tell us a bit about capacocha, the Inca practice of child sacrifice.
A few years back, photos flooded the internet of three mummified children. Reinhard, a now famous archaeologist, discovered the little bodies on a mountain peak in Argentina. I’ll get to the other two momentarily, but the mummy that attracted the most internet fame was also perhaps the most beautifully preserved (ever, of all time): Meet the Inca “Maiden“. She’s about 500 years old.
Since the Spanish burned most Inca records, we have only two main sources to learn about capacocha: The first is Spanish historical writings, and the second is its victims.
The Spanish writings come from missionaries and conquistadors observing the practice. Bernabe Cobo’s Historia del Nuevo Mundo (Trans: History of the New World) states that a capacocha ceremony began with a demand from the state. In response, each province paid an amount of gold, a number of llamas, and –among other things — a child. These children were selected based on their “physical perfection” and ranged from just 4 years old to about 16 years old. Once selected, the children were first brought to Cuzco for rituals and celebration. Then they began the journey to their deaths atop the Andes, sometimes many miles and months away.
The victims personalize the practice. Based on analyses of the Maiden’s stunning braids, for example, archeologists know that in the few weeks before her death, her intake of chicha (maize beer) and coco leaves shot up. Scientists guess that as an older victim, this girl might have been more aware of the gravity of her situation; in order to control her and contain her fear, perhaps her doses were upped to keep her in a constant stupor.
The Spanish writings and the artifacts buried with the victims tell us capacocha was performed in response to disturbing or highly important events: earthquakes, flooding, the death of a leader, etc. Always, the Inca turned to the mountains and the open sky to either save them or lend grace. This is why capacocha required the children to make such a long expedition up the mountain, and it might explain in part why many can be found sitting so peacefully: Often, the sacrifice was carried out by simply abandoning or entombing the sedated children. X-rays of the Maiden show when she passed out for the last time, whether from the frigid winds or the lack of oxygen in the thin atmosphere, she had still been chewing a clump of coca leaves.
The “Lightning Girl”, shown below, also evidently died of exposure. A lightning strike disfigured her cheek while her tiny four- or five-year-old body rested in the mountains, but the expression on the little girl’s face is also seemingly peaceful.
Other children were not so “lucky”, however. Or perhaps, more accurately, they were not so easily subdued. The adults who had accompanied the children had, for lack of a more accurate term, “strangled” the third victim, a little boy of about four or five years old. The bindings crushed the life out of his body, yanked so tightly his pelvis was dislocated in the process. The vomit on the boy’s wrappings indicate he had been fed a hallucinogenic drug as well.
Other children, like “Juanita”, another 14- to 15-year-old girl that Reinhard discovered in Peru, were bludgeoned to death by being struck over the head with a blunt object.
Reinhard states that these children were not viewed as sacrifices to be consumed. Rather, they were something like holy lottery winners. These children were fortune enough “to enter the realm of the gods and live in paradise with them. It was considered a great honour, a transition to a better life from which they would be expected to remain in contact with the community through shamans.” Conveniently, the romanticism of the practice probably meshed well with the needs of the Inca rulers to instill a sense of fear and awe across their vast lands.
The ugly poetry of all this is evident, and it evokes endless questions.
When were these children first separated from their parents? Did they cry for their parents as they were ripped from their arms, or were they delighted to be carried off in a joyful parade? What conversations were had on the long trek into the mountain? Surely at some point the caretakers had to carry the youngest children. Did these adults wince at the trust the littlest children placed in them? Did any of the caretakers once think “religion be damned; what am I doing?” Or did the caretakers all feel a profound inner peace and pride, having been chosen to escort these child gods to their final destination as humans? What was the children’s concept of death? Were the older children excited and nervous to join the gods, or did they beg their caretakers to let them return home? Were their mothers and fathers relieved and proud when the shamans spoke on behalf of their children? Or would they much rather have had a less extraordinary child, so he or she would still be in their arms? Maybe they never thought much about the children once they were gone, being so occupied just trying to survive in a much harsher world than ours.
Regardless, all these questions seem to lead back to that US tourist’s simple question:
“Was it just better that the Spanish came in and stopped all this?”
In a word… no.
I won’t get into the Inca having a different cultural perspective. Mostly, we know that, and mostly, we can hopefully accept that this is still no excuse or justification for the harm of innocents (no matter how happy those innocents are to hike up the mountain).
My reason for saying “no” is really much more related to the profound sense of loss that hangs about all the Inca ruins. We are slowly answering — and we will continue to answer — our “Who were they?” questions. We will never know who they could have been. In just about five decades, the human race hacked off and burned a significant piece of itself. A realm of religion, art, writing, language, agriculture, and children… just gone.
The Spanish did not come in and “stop all this.” They came in and perpetuated their own form of “this.” They dispatched souls with equal or perhaps even greater fervency; the fact that the souls allegedly went to join a different set of afterlife creatures is, again, no excuse or justification.
I get consumed by these stories because of the relevance they still seem to have today. If we recognize the profound loss that took place during that dim century and others like it, as native cultures were crushed and wiped out by incoming troops superior only in luck, what does it mean for myself as an American with our traditional American hero complex? What does it mean in a world of westernization and cultural appropriation? How can I fit the lessons I feel are so apparent in Cuzco into my own view of how to deal with harmful cultural practices still in place today?
We still struggle profoundly to find a balance between the advance of the Spanish and the stony patience of perfect non-interference: While the delicacy of independent cultural development demands preservation, as possible as it still is given globalization, the cries of victims — children in particular — continue to ring in our ears. Although I hope we’ll find that balance soon, it seems we stand to lose a good deal more first.