The Inca civilization, like other ancient Andean groups, practiced artificial mummification to honor their ancestors and to preserve the connection between the present and the past. The most important mummies of the Inca, including those of their emperors, were treated as still living beings – wrapped in fine textiles and jewelry, provided with food and drinks and carefully cared for by their living descendants.
Mummification in ancient Andean cultures
The Incas weren’t the first Andean culture to make mummies. In fact, the Chinchorro, a hunter-gatherer culture that began around 5000 BC, began.
While the bone-dry mountain climate near the coast naturally preserved human and other remains, the Chinchorro learned to prolong this process by removing the organs, embalming or drying the flesh, and putting the bodies back together. They began by mummifying the remains of children who had died young, but over time they also mummified the remains of adults, especially the elderly, who were considered influential in the life of a community. This process of ancestral formation through mummification was common among Andean groups in the 12th
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The role of the mummies in the Inca expansion
“Artificially preserved mummies from the Andes don’t look like mummies from Egypt,” says Christopher Heaney, assistant professor of Latin American history at Pennsylvania State University. Andean mummies were usually placed in a fetal position and wrapped in layers of leather or fabric to form bundles. For the Incas in particular, says Heaney, it was believed that silence and solidity “gave mummies the ability to move through time and to continue to shape the lives of the living.”
When their imperial expansion was in full swing in the mid-15th century, the Incas used mummification and ancestral formation as a common language to aid in their conquest and subjugation of other Andean groups. According to the Inca tradition, the Inca emperor was the direct descendant of the sun, which made him the ancestor of all he claimed as subjects. When the Incas incorporated a group into their empire, they claimed the mummies of the group’s ancestors, gave them offerings and brought the most powerful of them to the Inca capital Cuzco for worship.
“It was a step in power, but it was also nuanced because they said they would honor the dead of these other groups,” says Heaney. “The Incas were able to expand because they could speak this language of ancestral relationships.”
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Dominion in the hereafter
As the empire expanded, the role of the most powerful Inca mummies – known as illapa—grew beyond simple ancestor worship. When an Inca emperor died, his successor inherited his power but not his worldly possessions; these should follow the dead emperor into the afterlife. His family members then took care of his mummified body and made sure that it was kept in luxurious style even after death.
If that illapa were taken out and reassembled, the new Inca emperor sometimes displayed his own power by taking his place and sitting stone among his dead predecessors. But these mighty Inca mummies weren’t all male, Heaney points out; instead, they were often kept in male-female pairs. To claim power, a would-be emperor had to marry a prominent Inca woman, sometimes even a relative.
“There was a duality in understanding the universe for both the Incas and the Andes – that it is male and female, along with their respective powers and abilities that create the empire,” he says.
The fate of the Inca mummies after the Spanish conquest
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1530s, the Inca Empire stretched from what is now northern Ecuador to central Chile. “The Spaniards were fascinated and unsettled by the Inca cult of their ancestors,” explains Heaney. “They realized that these were not just embalmed bodies, but were still cosmically powerful and socially alive for the Inca and their subjects.”
After looting and otherwise destroying some of the mummy tombs, the Spanish finally decided in 1559 to confiscate all of the Inca mummies. The most famous were taken to Lima and kept in a Spanish hospital, where they were likely buried. In the meantime, stories about the Inca mummies spread around the world, thanks largely to Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman whose writings were written in the 17th and 18th centuries.
While efforts to excavate the imperial mummies have so far been unsuccessful, in recent decades a different group of Inca mummies has been at the center – those Inca subjects, especially children, who were ritually killed by the Incas and placed in mountain graves as emissaries between the living World and the apus, or mountain gods.
The most famous of these child sacrifices, or Capacocha, These include “Juanita”, the naturally mummified body of a young girl discovered in 1995 on Mount Ampato in the Peruvian Andes, as well as the bodies of a 13-year-old girl and two younger children who were found in a shrine near the summit of the Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina in 1999. Dating from the time of the Inca Empire, they are among the best-preserved mummies ever found from any period in the world.
“We can think of their murders as a demonstration by the Inca forces, but their deaths also made them some of the most powerful beings in the Empire,” Heaney says of the capacocha. “The irony is that they survived the centuries, not the emperors themselves.”