The Famous Mummies of the Inca and the Chinchorro

The mummies of the Inca and the Chinchorro people are found in remote places like mountains and deserts.

Mar 20, 2024By Natalia Meekins, MSc Ancient Cultures, BS Biology

mummies inca chinchorro photo


When people hear the word ‘mummies’, they immediately think of the mummies of ancient Egypt. However, many cultures partook in a mummification process for their dead, including the ancient peoples of Peru and Chile. This article will explore mummies from South America, beginning with the Inca and then the Chinchorro, with the latter containing the oldest artificial mummies in the world. We will examine various mummies from each culture, down to how they lived and died, the process of mummification, and their historical importance.


Inca Mummies: Where Were They Found?

all three llullaillaco children mummies
The 500-year-old frozen Incan children mummies found on Llullaillaco, a mountain on the Chile-Argentina border that was sacred to the Inca, 1999, via Andes Specialists


The Inca were among the most prominent of the pre-Colombian empires, spanning nearly the entire westernmost region of South America, following the spine of the Andean mountains. It was within these mountains that they would carry out their sacred rituals, as Mountain deities featured prominently in indigenous Andean beliefs. Mountain summits were the locations for the most important offerings of all: human sacrifices. It is thanks to the frigid air and the remoteness of these offerings that they have been able to remain as they were hundreds of years ago, despite the attempts of Spanish conquistadores and modern-day looters.


On the summit of Llullaillaco (a 6,739m high volcano), three mummified Incan children would be found in 1999 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard, making it the highest archaeological site in the world. The mummies included two girls and one boy, all sacrificed 500 years ago as part of the Inca ritual called capacocha. Not only were they remarkably well-preserved, but they were all surrounded by dozens of other Incan artifacts intended as offerings as well. The mummies had been buried in a stone platform that had been built over openings in the bedrock where the mummies had been placed in three separate chambers.


The Llullaillaco Maiden

llullaillaco maiden mummy closeup
The incredible detail of the Llullaillaco maiden, 1999, via National Geographic


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The most well-preserved (and oldest) of the three mummies is a 13-year-old girl dubbed the ‘Llullaillaco maiden’. She was found wearing a feathered headdress and draped in a tunic associated with Inca nobility. She still retains the same ‘sleepy’ features she had when sacrificed 500 years ago, her long braided hair obscuring her face.


Chemical analyses of her hair revealed a significant change to her diet a year before her death, as she went from eating potatoes to protein-rich food and maize. This could indicate that she was selected as an aclla, a woman selected by the Inca to live in temples and serve as a priestess to the sun god. It was also discovered that she had been drinking coca and alcohol, such as chicha, for the past year and had ingested enormous doses of both in the preceding weeks before her death. She even had a coca leaf still clenched between her teeth, suggesting she was chewing it before she died.


The Other Two Children

johan reinhard with inca mummies on llullaillaco
Anthropologist Johan Reinhard with Inca mummies on the summit of Llullaillaco, 1999, via Penn Museum


The other two mummies (a boy and girl) are both four to five years old. The girl is particularly remarkable, as she was still intact despite appearing to have been hit by lightning at some point in time, dubbing her the name ‘Lightning Girl’. Her internal tissues and organs, including her heart and brain, are still well preserved despite lightning having caused a cavity in her chest. The boy, dubbed ‘Llullaillaco Boy’, was found bundled up with rope around his legs with spare clothes placed next to him. Like the Llullaillaco Maiden, both were also found to have been well-fed during the final year of their lives.


Analysis of all the children’s stomach contents showed that they had been provided with good meals hours before they were sacrificed. But when compared to the Llullaillaco maiden, hair analysis of the young boy and girl showed they were ingesting significantly lower amounts of coca and alcohol in the weeks before their death, possibly because of their young age.


How Did They Die?


All three Llullaillaco children are believed to have been heavily drugged before their sacrifice. In Inca rituals, drugs like coca and chicha were used to induce an altered state associated with the sacred. In turn, these drugs would have made the children heavily sedated and disoriented as they undertook their pilgrimage to the top of the mountain.


It is believed that once the children reached the summit, they were placed in their respective chambers, fell asleep, and simply left to freeze to death. On top of being drugged, the ordeal of climbing the mountain would have undeniably led to exhaustion and altitude sickness. Some scholars even believe that the Llullaillaco Boy may have died from altitude sickness before reaching the mountain summit.


Why Are the Llullaillaco Mummies so Important?

johan reinhard with lightning girl mummy
Johan Reinhard carefully examining the Lightning Girl, her charred clothing can be seen due to being hit by lightning, 1999, via Grand Circle Travel


The excavation and study of these child sacrifices give us important insights into the Inca empire. In Inca beliefs, a child chosen for sacrifice would have brought honor to their parents. The child would have been well-cared for and ensured an afterlife of bliss. The artifacts and clothing buried with them are elite and intricately made, further highlighting the extreme importance of these children and how the sacrifices were supported by Inca at the highest levels of society. These sacrifices may also reveal how the Inca retained a level of control over the surrounding territories.


However, what makes these mummies so unique is the fact that the Inca did not purposely mummify them. These were a happenstantial result of the below-freezing temperatures of the mountain peak and its sheer remoteness that turned these children into frozen mummies untouched for centuries. Thanks to their accidental mummification, they can provide us with key insights into their lives and the Inca world they came from.


Who Were the Chinchorro People?

monument to chinchorro culture chile
‘Cantar del Viento’ Monument to the Chinchorro Culture, Municipality of Camarones, Chile, 2018, via UNESCO


While the three Incan children may have been accidentally mummified, the Chinchorro mummies were not. The oldest known artificial mummies in the world belong to the Chinchorro,  an ancient people that lived 7,000 years ago in present-day Peru and Chile. It is in the Atacama Desert where they purposely mummified their dead for 4,000 years. The Chinchorro were not a stratified society; they were hunter-gatherers specializing in fishing and marine gathering. They lived along the Atacama Desert coast, stretching from Ilo in Peru to the south of Iquique in northern Chile. Some of their archaeological sites in the Arica and Parinacota Region, were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2021.


What Makes Chinchorro Mummies Unique?

chinchorro museum exhibit chile
View of the Chinchorro Exhibit, San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum, Arica, Chile, 2017, via UNESCO


Besides being the oldest in the world, the Chinchorro mummies are remarkable for several reasons. Their artificial mummification practices are sophisticated and visually appealing, revealing that these ancient peoples had an astonishing grasp of human anatomy.


The dry environment of the Atacama Desert, compounded with the complex funerary rites of the Chinchorro, resulted in the preservation of these ancient mummies that enabled them to last for thousands of years. What is truly unique, however, is that Chinchorro mummification was not carried out on a person of high rank or social status but on infants and small children. This suggests that these mortuary practices were the result of parental grief rather than a reflection of the social position of the deceased.


The Types of Chinchorro Mummification


The Chinchorro mummification process involved the use of pigments, clays, and reeds. There are four Chinchorro mummy types, as each was unique both visually and materially. Scholars divide the types into black, red, bandaged, and mud-coated mummies. The black mummies are one of the most visually striking types and are believed to be the oldest, with one dating to 6,600 years before the present.


black chinchorro child mummy
A black Chinchorro child mummy. The wooden pole on top of its head is to anchor the skull to the body, 2012, via UNESCO


The beginning of mummification for black mummies starts with defleshing the body, including scalping the hair. The bodies would then be buried, exhumed, and the bones cleaned of all remaining soft tissue. Their bones would then be reassembled with canes and ties to reinforce the skeleton. Then their body modeled with clay, with the adult mummies even having their genitalia modeled. Finally, they would cover the body with patches of skin (their own or animal’s) and then paint it in black manganese, hence the term ‘black mummy’. A short black wig and black mask were the final added touches.


red chinchorro child mummy with helmet
A red Chinchorro child mummy, the red clay helmet was used to keep the wig attached, 2012, via Research Gate.


The other most visually striking type of Chinchorro mummy are the red mummies. They appeared chronologically later than black mummies and were prepared differently. The body would first be disemboweled, the organs removed through careful incisions. The body cavities were then filled with different elements, such as soil and feathers. The stitched-up body would then be painted with red ochre, while the face was painted with black manganese. Unlike black mummies, red mummies have long black wigs with no mask covering their face.


The black and red mummification styles are the most elaborate of Chinchorro mummies. The bandaged mummies were a variant of the red mummy, with the skin being replaced with bandages. The mud-coated mummies were naturally dried bodies that were covered in a thick layer of mud and were the last phase of Chinchorro mummies.


What These Mummies Tell Us about the Chinchorro People


Regardless of the type of mummy, the practice of Chinchorro mummification is truly extraordinary. Unlike the famous mummies of Egypt, the Chinchorro did not have professional mummifiers, or standardized procedures. For four millennia, the body was treated individually by the family, combining anatomical knowledge with funerary traditions passed from generation to generation. Each Chinchorro mummy is therefore unique, highlighting how the Chinchorro truly mastered their own exceptional way of mummifying their dead.



Why did the Inca sacrifice children?

The Inca sacrificed children in a ritual called capacocha, primarily to appease their gods, especially to ensure good crops, weather, and to mark significant events. This was done because they believed it was an honor, and the children, being pure, were the most valuable offerings to their gods.


How did the Chinchorro people preserve organs?

The Chinchorro people, predating ancient Egyptian mummification, preserved organs through a detailed process. They removed the organs and skin, reinforced the body with sticks, filled it with vegetation, covered it with clay, and painted it to maintain a lifelike appearance.


Are there any Inca mummies besides the Llullaillaco children?

Yes, there are other Inca mummies besides the Llullaillaco children. Many Inca mummies have been discovered, preserved naturally by the cold and dry conditions of the Andes. These mummies provide valuable insights into the Inca way of life, their health, diet, and also the practice of human sacrifice.

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By Natalia MeekinsMSc Ancient Cultures, BS BiologyNatalia originally graduated from Portland State University with the intention of being a pharmacist, as her family wanted. She quickly realized that she was much happier doing what she always loved: archaeology. Since then, she’s worked several ancient Native American digs in the USA before getting her MSc in Ancient Cultures from the University of Glasgow. She is a member of the Explorers Club and is especially interested in underwater archaeology and ancient world history. Natalia’s dream is to start her own salvage/exploration company and investigate various cultures around the world.