The Maiden of Llullaillaco appears to have fallen asleep moments ago: her head rests peacefully on her knees, and her hair, in tiny braids, falls over her face. The relaxed stance of this Andean mummy misleads curious viewers. Around five hundred years ago, Incan priests gave the 13-year-old chicha, an alcoholic drink, until she was in a stupor and abandoned her on a mountain in the Andes along with two more children, about five years old. There, freezing temperatures, alcohol, and the high altitude lulled the trio to sleep and then to the world beyond. National Geographic relates how their bodies remained completely untouched until 1999 when a team of archaeologists made a discovery. While climbing the slopes of Mount Llullaillaco in northern Argentina, they uncovered some of the most stunningly preserved mummies in the world. Today, travelers can view these Incan mummies and others while traveling in South America.
Mummies? In South America? What?
Egypt's mummies are famous worldwide, but people in Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia have also been embalming and preserving their dead through elaborate ceremonies for thousands of years.
South America's very oldest--the Chinchorro mummies of the Atacama desert in Chile--predate Egypt's by around 2000 years, according to National Geographic. That means that these remains were prepared and mummified cerca 5000 BC. This hunting-gathering-fishing society prepared its members for burial by wrapping them in reeds and placing round clay masks over their faces. Scientists theorize that they used water from a river naturally contaminated with high concentrations of arsenic to keep the corpses from rotting. Around 300 such mummies are stored in the Azapa Museum in Arica, Chile.
Throughout the Andes mountains, early settlements continued to preserve their dead, participating in elaborate funeral ceremonies. Most recently, the people in the Incan empire prepared their dead by arranging them in the fetal position and decorating them with colorful clothes, feathers, and decorations. Sometimes these mummies are wrapped in cords, bags, or placed inside large ceramic urns. Many wear new sandals to help them walk through the afterlife.
The mummies of Incan child sacrifices are distressing and difficult to understand from the modern point of view. Religious figures groomed little ones for around a year, dressed them elaborately, and fed them special diets. On the selected day, they drugged their victims and abandoned them on high mountain slopes to appease the deities. These mummies, in particular, are in a prime state of preservation due to climatic conditions. In some cases, the time has affected the children's remains so little that they appear to be sleeping 500 years after their demise.
Where Can I See Andean Mummies?
Visitors in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru can view mummies, both pre-Incan and Incan in museums dotted throughout South America.
After seeing some of the world's oldest mummies in Arica, Chile, Lenka Hadravova left this Google review of the Azapa San Miguel Museum: "What a priceless exhibition with world-level significance! These artifacts are gems of humanity, yet this museum is so low key, no crowds, and tucked away in a serene university courtyard." Anyone visiting the Atacama desert should stop by Arica to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Azapa San Miguel Museum, Arica, Chile
- Open: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm
- Phone: 56-58-202-6403
- What you see: 7000-year-old mummies
The Leymebamba Museum in a Peruvian town of the same name houses around 200 mummies in various states of preservation. In 1997, archaeologists extracted these remains from tombs in limestone cliffs at the nearby Laguna de los Cóndores to prevent people from robbing the gravesites.
Travelers can reach Leymebamba by taking a bus or taxi from the larger Peruvian town of Chachapoyas. Visiting Laguna de Los Condores is possible as well, but means taking a nine-hour hike or long horse ride and camping there overnight.
Leymebamba Museum, Leymebamba, Peru
- Open: Monday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm
- Phone: 51-971-104-909
- What you see: 200 mummies, around 500 years old
Argentina's MAAM is the perfect place to see the mummies created as Incans sacrificed to mountain deities. At this site, visitors will view one of the three mummies archaeologists found atop Mount Llullaillaco--the curators exhibit them on a rotating schedule.
MAAM Salta, Salta, Argentina
- Open: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 am to 6:30 pm
- Website: www.maam.gob.ar
- What you see: The Maiden of Llullaillaco, Lightnight Girl, Llullaillaco Boy along with the artifacts and clothing from their tomb
People traveling through Argentina's wine region in Mendoza should stray a bit off the path and visit the neighboring province of San Juan. Here, they'll find the Museo Mariano Gambier. This establishment houses around 15 mummies.
Museo Mariano Gambier, Rawson, San Juan, Argentina
- Open: Monday through Friday, 8 am to 8 pm, and Saturday, 8 am to 6 pm
- Phone: 0264-424-1424
- What you'll see: About 15 mummified remains and other pre-Columbian artifacts
It's impossible to know what these now-mummified people were thinking before their deaths. Likely they couldn't have imagined that their terrestrial bodies would remain on display in glass cases and in labs for scientists to study. Saphi, a mummy from Bolivia, was taken far from her homeland, to a Michigan museum, and returned to Bolivia decades later. The Man from Cerro Toro was taken off display in San Juan and returned to the indigenous groups that claimed him. Whatever the past and future stories of these people, now preserved as mummies, they continue to fascinate visitors and inspire them to learn more about how people lived in the pre-Columbian Andes.