Ritually sacrificed Inca children fed ‘soothing’ coca and caapi cocktails

The medicinal use of plants and the collection, dissemination and application of traditional knowledge surrounding plants (ethnobotany) is a well-documented indigenous practice in the Americas to this day. Many of these practices are still not well understood, and a recent example is that of three sacrificed Inca children found in the 1990s in southern Peru. According to a new study published in The Journal of Archaeological Sciences .

Sacrificed Inca children were prepared with drugs for death

These sacrificed Inca children, probably between the ages of 4 and 8, were ritually put to death nearly 500 years ago. The latest study shows that these sacrificial children were given a special soothing concoction in the days and weeks leading up to their deaths. When the time came for them to die, they were “ready” to be ceremonially sacrificed and buried on a mountain in Peru and elsewhere.

The study found that the hair and fingernails of these sacrificed Inca children contained evidence of high doses of the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca, mixed with coca leaves (i.e. cocaine!). This was corroborated by traces of harmine and harmaline, which are chemical constituents of ayahuasca Banisteriopsis caapi vines, colloquially known as “caapi”, reports Scientific News .

Bioarchaeologist Dagmara Socha from the University of Warsaw, Poland, who is the study’s lead author, said: “This is the first [evidence] that B. caapi could have been used in the past for its antidepressant properties. This is because, medically, harmine-containing solutions affect the brain in a similar way to antidepressants. The authors speculate that the Incas were aware of these properties and operated with this knowledge when administering these concoctions to these children before they eventually became ritually sacrificed Inca children.

This sacrificed Inca child, a 7-year-old boy, found on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina was part of a sacrificial capacocha ceremony. ( National Museum of Natural History of Chile )

The Capacocha sacrificial ritual: to please the gods!

Many pre-Columbian civilizations used drugs in their human sacrifice rituals, especially if the sacrificial victims were children. The specific term for these types of sacrificial rituals is ” capacocha”, who could be performed for a variety of reasons, ranging from stopping natural disasters, large festivals and processions, to appease the gods for sins committed by the group.

In the capacocha, alcohol and coca leaves were usually administered, and a child from a noble or elite family was chosen for the ritual. It was believed that this child would be a representative of the community before the gods. For most families, having their child chosen for this ceremonial sacrifice was considered honorary, as it would help them gain political favor with higher elites like the Inca Emperor.

The cocktail of alcohol and coke was believed to be a means of inducing a hallucinogenic state to help sacrificial victims come into contact with the supernatural forces they were to encounter on their journey to the land of the dead. Coca specifically given at such high altitudes would also serve to reduce hunger and stimulate the nervous system.

The recent study and its toxicological analysis, however, challenge this dominant narrative and force us to rethink what the Inca believed, reports think big .

One of the recovered Llullaillaco mummies, found near the top of Mount Llullaillaco, an Argentinian volcano near the Chilean border.  This mountain appears to have been the site of the conclusion of an Inca capacocha sacrificial ceremony, which takes place at an altitude of approximately 6,739 meters or 22,100 feet above sea level. (grooverpédro / CC BY 2.0 )

One of the recovered Llullaillaco mummies, found near the top of Mount Llullaillaco, an Argentinian volcano near the Chilean border. This mountain appears to have been the site of the conclusion of an Inca capacocha sacrificial ceremony, which takes place at an elevation of approximately 6,739 meters or 22,100 feet above sea level. DC BY 2.0 )

Sacrificial Lambs: Why Were They Chosen?

The subjects of the recent study were a small number of mummies discovered by American explorer Johan Reinhard and Peruvian archaeologist José Antonio Chávez on the Andes Ampato volcano in 1995. These bodies, along with a few others found in and around the same tray, were examined. using bioarchaeological analyses. The findings were consistent with a number of mummified infant remains found across the geographic expanse of what was once the Inca Empire.

The children were buried at regular intervals, 5 kilometers or 3.1 miles apart. Such an accurate burial scheme indicates uniqueness as opposed to any dead child who died naturally. These sacrificed Inca children were buried with prized possessions that functioned as additional sacrificial offerings. These offerings included ceramic vessels, gold and silver figurines, and finely decorated textiles.

Clearly caapi mixed with coca was intended to soothe the victims’ nerves, rather than stimulate them. When the Spaniards conquistadores came into contact with the local Inca cultures, they “assumed” that the victims of Inca sacrifices drank a corn-brewed beer called shisha before dying.

The Spanish conquerors of Peru were clearly unable to comprehend or comprehend this caapi was really made and what was its function in the rituals of human sacrifices. This is not surprising given that the Spaniards had almost no understanding of the local languages ​​spoken in the Americas.

Interestingly, one of the reasons Peruvian children from the Ampato Mountains were sacrificed was so they could call rain. Frogs and toads were associated with rain and water by the Incas. And “Ampato” translates to frog or toad in the ancient Inca language! Perhaps fear of an impending, or existing, drought prompted the Incas to send their children to die atop the Ampato volcano.

However, these are only speculations. It will take several such studies and historical corroborations to understand the full nature of these sacrifices. What is clear, however, is that we can begin to understand that coca and caapi administered together were probably intended to calm the nerves rather than arouse the senses.

Top image: This sacrificed Inca child, known as Llull Maiden #23, was found on a mountain in Argentina several years ago and shares similarities with the Inca mummies of sacrificed children found on the Ampato volcano, in Peru. Source: © Johan Reinhard, Ph.D. . (used with permission)

By Sahir Pandey

Edward K. Thompson