Inca Child Sacrifice Victims Were Placed on Volcanoes So They'd Be Struck by Lightning, Researchers Say

Inca child sacrifice victims were purposefully placed in spots where they would stand a good chance of being struck by lightning, a bioarchaeologist has said.

Researchers were examining the remains of six children found on two volcanoes in Peru—Ampato and Pitchu Pitchu—in a bid to find out where in the empire they had come from.

The children, they said, had been placed on special sacrificial stone platforms in areas known to be exposed to lightning strikes, Science in Poland (PAP), a website run by the country's Ministry of Science and Higher Education, reports. The platforms are believed to have been repeatedly struck by lightning, which explains why some of the remains—including clothes and soft tissues—had not been preserved as well as other Incan sacrifice victims.

"According to the Incas, a person struck by lightning received great honor—a god expressed interest in that person," Socha, from the Center for Andean Studies of the University of Warsaw in Cusco, told PAP. Some of these remains were found to have burn marks, while the soil around the sacrificial sites appears to have been crystallized.

At the time these sacrifices were taking place—about 500 years ago—Incas believed the children killed would become intermediaries between humans and the gods. "The Incas considered the children pure and untouched. Their status was supposed to facilitate persuading the gods to make specific decisions," Socha is quoted as saying.

Child sacrifice in the Incan Empire was performed as part of the capacocha ritual. Children were chosen because they were thought to be the purest of society, therefore the best people to offer to the gods. Previous research suggests victims would be chosen many years in advance—hair samples from victims indicated they were "fattened up" in the years leading to their deaths.

Three mummies found at the world's highest archaeological site—Mount Llullaillaco, on the border of Argentina and Chile—have provided considerable insight into the lives of Incan child sacrifice victims. These mummies, found at a shrine near the mountain summit, are some of the best preserved in the world—meaning scientists are able to reconstruct their lives in unprecedented detail.

Isotope analysis of their hair samples showed how in the months and weeks before their deaths, the children were drugged with alcohol and coca, which cocaine is derived from. Researchers believe this may have helped sedate the victims before their deaths. One of the mummies, known as the Llullaillaco Maiden, was found to have a lump of chewed coca leaves in her mouth.

Exactly how children were chosen is not known. It has been suggested they may have come from different parts of the empire as a way of connecting communities.

Socha and the team's research appears to support this idea. One skull examined—which belonged to a girl—was found to have been artificially elongated—a practice that was used in the lowlands, far from where her remains were found. Analysis of her teeth also showed she suffered from a period of hunger around the age of three. "I suppose it was then that the girl was taken away from her parents and brought to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire, where the girl was being prepared for three years to be sacrificed at the top of the volcano," Socha told PAP.

The team now plans to study teeth samples further so they can determine their diet and place of origin, which should help shed more light on Incan child sacrifice.

Stock image showing lightning strikes. Researchers say Inca child sacrifice victims were placed on stone slabs in areas known to be repeatedly hit by lightning. iStock