The human sacrifice described in Lima’s museum was really not too bad – two warriors from different villages would fight each other and when it was clear which one was the strongest and most powerful, the fight would end, and the winner would ritually sacrifice the loser using a special knife, collect the blood in a special golden bowl and eat the heart to ‘gain their strength’. While it was certainly a bit gruesome to see such implements, at least the victims were killed after a fair(ish) fight and for a religious purpose. Compare this with the Romans who had men fight to the death in the amphitheatre just as a form of entertainment – this Incan practice is perhaps not quite as grisly as first seems (apart from the heart-eating bit maybe).
The human sacrifice they practiced in the area around Arequipa was of a rather different nature, as it involved sacrificing young children (!) to appease mountain gods, probably in a period of drought. Bodies of sacrificed highborn children aged 10-14 have been found on Mount Ampato in the Colca Canyon, one of the main mountains that the Incas worshipped as a god. (Apparently young children were chosen because they were pure and unblemished.) Because the mountain was frozen, the bodies were preserved almost perfectly – and some of them are now on display in a museum in Arequipa which we went to see. The British Museum has Egyptian mummies on display, but this was something rather different as you could see their faces clearly and the museum also displayed their clothes and jewellery – I’m not entirely sure what are the ethics of having human bodies on display for tourists to gawp at, especially children’s bodies from less than 500 years ago.
What was interesting was how they had managed to reconstruct the final moments of one of the girls’ lives, a 12 year old they named Juanita. She walked from Cuzco (the Incan capital) 180km in a religious procession, and climbed the 6000m high mountain, a feat in itself. At the top she was given a potent alcoholic drink and this, combined with the extreme cold and high altitude, would have sent her into a deep sleep so that went the Incan priest dealt her a deadly blow on the head, she wouldn’t have felt it. Apparently, she was willing to be sacrificed, as she thought that she was going to live with the gods – though quite how they proved this I wasn’t entirely sure, apart from that it would have been difficult to drag an unwilling 12 year old up a 6000m high mountain.
Coming face to face with a dead body, albeit through several layers of thick glass, is not something I’ve ever done before, and was a strange feeling. I almost felt it was rude to look too hard, as the guide pointed out her perfectly preserved hair and fingernails. A rather more chilling museum experience than standard, but then again, perhaps one that makes you think about things more than a museum full of pots…