The Children Of Salta — The Sacred Inca Mummies That One Archaeologist Wouldn’t Let Rest
In Salta, Argentina, the mummified remains of three sacrificed Inca youths are on display at the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM).
The so-called “Children of Salta” were discovered on Mount Llullaillaco, a volcano along Argentina’s border with Chile, in 1999 by American archaeologist Johan Reinhard. The constant below-freezing temperatures on Llullaillaco’s summit caused the bodies of the two girls and one boy to freeze solid mere hours after their death, arresting decomposition. In spite of approximately five centuries spent on the summit, the remains bear an arresting likeness to the children in life.
The oldest of the children, known as la Doncella (the Maiden), was approximately thirteen when she died. She likely died from exposure or hypoxia. Visitors to the MAAM can view her cryopreserved body. She is seated inside a clear acrylic cylinder: legs crossed, hands folded in her lap and chin resting on her chest.
This serene scene belies the intense controversy that surrounds the mummies. The controversy was kicked off when Reinhard, on one of his “mummy hunting” expeditions in the Andes, made the treacherous climb up Llullaillaco.
The Reinhard expedition reads as a primer on unethical conduct in archaeology: A missing permit, a graduate student being lowered by his ankles to retrieve a body, and a shocking disdain for the local Indigenous community that holds Llullaillaco sacred was just some of the lamentable behaviour.
Long before Reinhard’s expedition came for their bodies, the children of Salta were brought to the mountaintop and sacrificed in a capacocha rite. King Pacha Cuti, who ruled in the fifteenth century, initiated the ritual. Pacha Cuti famously expanded the Inca Empire to include the rest of Peru and nearly all of western South America. Members of the local nobility volunteered their children for the capacocha rite, suggesting that capacocha served to build alliances with local chiefs whose lands were incorporated into the Empire. In preparation for the ritual, the healthiest and most attractive children were collected from villages throughout the empire and sent to Cuzco. The children were then redistributed to one of the Empire’s four territories. Their journey ended on the top of a mountain as a sacrifice to appease or entreat the gods.
The high peaks of the Andes have yielded the mummified remains of other apparent victims of the capacocha rite. In 1954, three muleteers discovered the mummified remains of a boy, eight or nine years old, on the summit of Cerro el Plomo in Chile. Since then, climbers, archaeologists, ore prospectors and others have encountered the mummified remains of individuals on Andean peaks in Chile, Peru and Argentina.
Reinhard formed his expedition to search for Inca mummies on Llullaillaco. He partnered with a doctoral student from Buenos Aires, Constanza Ceruti. The expedition was funded, in part, by a grant from the National Geographic Society, which also provided for conservation work on any mummies located. As part of the agreement, National Geographic retained exclusivity rights to the mummies and artifacts for one year after their discovery. As a result, after the expedition excavated and removed the mummies from Llullaillaco, they underwent conservation at the Catholic University of Salta and were reported in the National Geographic magazine. The provincial government in Salta took possession of the mummies after the exclusivity period elapsed and built the MAAM to house them.
In the course of laying his plans, Reinhard made several decisions that would later invite controversy. Whether borne of self-interest or mere oversight, the result was that the expedition fell far short of the standards for “good” archaeology. The expedition took the spirit of treasure hunt instead — the photograph of a graduate student being dangled into a pit by his ankles to retrieve a mummy published in National Geographic is a public measure of the buccaneering attitude that governed.
Shortly after he removed the mummies from the summit, it emerged that Reinhard lacked authorization to excavate on Llullaillaco. He had permission from the provincial authorities in Salta but failed to secure approval from Argentina’s national government, as required by law.
Reinhard also did not consult with the Kolla, the local Indigenous people, before removing the mummies. The Kolla are culturally affiliated with the Inca, which means that they can trace their group identity through time back to the Inca. Llullaillaco is a sacred site to the Kolla and removing the mummies desecrated it. The Kolla filed a lawsuit to enforce their rights but the federal attorney rejected the claim, tendering the authorization by the provincial government as evidence of the legality of the expedition (apparently notwithstanding Reinhard’s failure to secure approval from the Argentine government).
Finally, Reinhard did not involve any local expertise in his research team. His choice of a doctoral student from Buenos Aires as his Argentinian counterpart ignored the expertise of archaeologists and anthropologists from the local university in Salta. The fact that he was a foreigner and funded by an American media giant with a self-declared history of racist colonial coverage did not help matters. Reinhard’s failure to engage with Argentinian and Indigenous people in any meaningful way opened him up to criticisms of cultural imperialism.
For his part, Reinhard has never attempted any reconciliation. He is adamant that the funding from National Geographic did not influence any of the expedition’s key decisions. Rather, corporate funding from sources such as National Geographic and Rolex helped him “rescue” the mummies from looters. In his words, “archaeological sites are being looted like crazy” in the Andes and must be excavated “before this unique cultural patrimony [is] lost.”
The publicity that Reinhard orchestrated around his discovery on Llullaillaco attracted an unprecedented degree of interest in Inca mummies and initiated a “mummy-hunting” craze among looters in the Andes.
The mountaintops that safeguarded these sites for over five hundred years are now beacons to anyone brave or desperate enough to ascend to them in search of “treasure”. Reinhard has never publicly acknowledged his role in this situation of events.
Back in Salta, the MAAM is in its second decade and the mummies are still on display. More conscientious museum directors would have removed the mummies to storage but Dr. Gabriel Miremont, the MAAM’s designer and director, remains unbotherd. He paints his institution as disinterested — safeguarding the mummies while Reinhard and others are swept up in the controversy:
Whether it was right or wrong to take the mummies from the mountain, I don’t know, but we now have them, so we have a choice: leave them in a laboratory with a small group of scientists, or share them with society. I think it’s more democratic to give everyone the opportunity to see them.
Regardless of what Miremont says, the MAAM is clearly invested in the status quo. The mummies are the museum’s raison d’être. No one would pay to visit the museum without la Doncella in her cylinder.
Knowingly, Miremont offloads the decision to display the mummies from the museum to the museum visitor. La Doncella cylinder is dark — the visitor must turn on a light to see her. Of this arrangement, Miremont says, “If you don’t want to see a dead body, don’t press the button. It’s your decision.”
Try as he might, he does not convince. The MAAM’s decision to continue to hold and display the mummies perpetuates the injustices begun by Reinhard’s expedition, particularly the stunning disregard for the rights of Argentina’s Indigenous people.
The Kolla have an undeniable right to have their sacred sites preserved from pillage and to withhold consent to the display of their ancestors and community members in a museum. The present situation denies this right.
The righting of the wrongs can only begin when the MAAM ceases to display the mummies. Today, most national museums in Argentina have adopted a policy of repatriating human remains and have done so on several occasions. In the case of institutions that will not voluntarily repatriate remains, Argentina has national repatriation legislation. Unfortunately, the legislation is unclear whether a claim from a culturally affiliated group, such as the Kolla, as opposed to lineal descendants, will be recognized. Furthermore, the legislation only applies to national museums. As a provincial museum, the MAAM is exempt. There is also no indication that the MAAM will follow the example of other museums and repatriate the remains voluntarily. Until it does so, however, the career, research, and financial interests of more powerful stakeholders will continue to usurp the right of all individuals, regardless of their cultural background, to be treated with dignity and respect.
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