"Long before it's in the papers"
July 29, 2013


Study explores how Inca kids were drugged for sacrifice

July 29, 2013
Special to World Science  

Chil­dren of the an­cient In­ca Em­pire were fed in­ten­si­fying doses of al­co­hol and co­ca leaf for as long as a year be­fore their slaugh­ter in a bru­tal sac­ri­fice rit­u­al, sci­en­tists re­port.

Both drugs may have been used for their “psy­cho­logic­ally dead­en­ing, dis­ori­ent­ing, and mood-modifying ef­fects” and to en­sure co­op­er­a­tive­ness, wrote the re­search­ers. Their pa­pe­r on the find­ings ap­pears in this week’s early on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces.

Above, the "Maiden"; below, a radio­graph show­ing the in­side of her mouth, with a coca bun­dle (green) be­tween the teeth. (Im­age cour­tesy PNAS)

More­o­ver, “co­ca and al­co­hol were sub­stances that in­duced al­tered states in­ter­preted as sa­cred, and which could sug­gest to vic­tims and those as­so­ci­at­ed with them the proxim­ity of the di­vine be­ings” whom the sac­ri­fices were meant to ap­pease, they added.

Co­ca, a plant from which the drug co­caine is de­rived, was in wide­spread use in the In­ca Em­pire, which lasted from about the 12th to the 16th cen­turies A.D. and was based in modern-day Pe­ru. 

More than a dec­ade ago, ar­chae­o­lo­gists un­earthed three in­di­vid­ually en­tombed mum­mies pe­rched atop Llul­lail­laco, a 6,739 me­ter (7,370 yard) high An­de­an vol­ca­no in north­west Ar­gen­ti­na. Long be­lieved to be sac­ri­ficed dur­ing cer­e­mo­ni­al In­ca rites called ca­pa­cocha, the 13-year-old girl, and 4-5-year-old boy and girl were re­markably well-pre­served and have since been ex­ten­sively stud­ied. 

An­drew Wil­son of the Uni­vers­ity of Brad­ford, U.K., tracked the chil­dren’s con­sump­tion of co­ca leaves and an al­co­holic bev­er­age called chi­cha by check­ing the lev­els of co­ca and chi­cha chem­i­cal break­down prod­ucts in the mum­mies’ hair. This pro­cess is not un­like stu­dy­ing tree rings. Hair clos­er to the root is more re­cently grown and thus tends to con­tain chem­i­cals re­flect­ing the most re­cent di­e­tary habits.

For the “maid­en,” the re­search­ers were able to trace di­et over the 21 months be­fore death. It ap­pears she con­sumed more co­ca and chi­cha than the two oth­er chil­dren, they found. The da­ta in­di­cate an ir­reg­u­lar but strong, overall, in­crease in in­take of both sub­stances over the year be­fore death, Wil­son and col­leagues found. Al­co­hol use in par­tic­u­lar spiked sharply just be­fore death.

The maid­en was con­sum­ing co­ca right un­til the end, with a chewed-up bun­dle of co­ca leaves still be­tween her teeth, the sci­en­tists not­ed. 

The consumption patterns may re­flect “an in­ten­tion­al and pre­cise sched­ule of events,” Wil­son and col­leagues wrote. The young­er chil­dren had much shorter hair than the maid­en and thus their da­ta went back only about a third as far—the re­search­ers as­sumed hair growth of 1 cm (0.4 inches) per month.

The ca­pa­cocha rit­u­al, held in hon­or of im­por­tant impe­rial events, un­folded with the In­ca send­ing a de­mand for trib­ute out to the provinces, in­clud­ing for phys­ic­ally pe­rfect 4-to-16-year-old chil­dren. These would be sac­ri­ficed amid much cer­e­mo­ny and feast­ing in their hon­or. Death might oc­cur by suf­foca­t­ion, a head b­low or bur­i­al alive; in any case, the vic­tims would be left bur­ied in an elab­o­rate moun­tain­top gra­ve.

The rit­u­al would in­evitably have cre­at­ed a “cli­mate of fear” among sub­ject peo­ples of the In­ca Em­pire, Wil­son and col­leagues wrote, al­though elab­o­rate pre­tenses typ­ic­ally masked this fear. 

“This is im­plic­it in com­ments made by the Span­ish Jes­u­it mis­sion­ary and writ­er Bern­abé Cobo (1653) in rela­t­ion to par­ents com­pelled to give up their chil­dren,” they added. Cobo wrote that “‘it was a ma­jor of­fense to show any sad­ness,’ and that ‘they were obliged to do it with ges­tures of hap­pi­ness and sat­is­fac­tion, as if they were tak­ing their chil­dren to be­stow up­on them a ver­y im­por­tant re­ward.’”

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

Sign up for

On Home Page         


  • Did mono­gamy arise to pre­vent infanti­cide?

  • Scient­ists probe how In­ca kids were drug­ged for sacri­fice


  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

  • Diff­erent cul­tures’ mu­sic matches their spe­ech styles, study finds


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Children of the ancient Inca Empire were fed intensifying doses of alcohol and coca leaf for as long as a year before their slaughter in a brutal sacrifice ritual, scientists report. Both drugs may have been used for their “psychologically deadening, disorienting, and mood-modifying effects” and to ensure cooperativeness, wrote the researchers. Their paper on the findings appears in this week’s early online issue of the journal pnas. Moreover, “coca and alcohol were substances that induced altered states interpreted as sacred, and which could suggest to victims and those associated with them the proximity of the divine beings” whom the sacrifices were meant to appease, they added. Coca, a plant from which the drug cocaine is derived, was in widespread use in the Inca Empire, which lasted from about the 12th to the 16th centuries A.D. and was based in modern-day Peru. More than a decade ago, archaeologists unearthed three individually entombed mummies perched atop Llullaillaco, a 6,739 meter (7,370 yard) high Andean volcano in northwest Argentina. Long believed to be sacrificed during ceremonial Inca rites called capacocha, the 13-year-old girl, and 4-5-year-old boy and girl were remarkably well-preserved and have since been extensively studied. Andrew Wilson of the University of Bradford, U.K., tracked the children’s consumption of coca leaves and an alcoholic beverage called chicha by checking the levels of coca and chicha chemical breakdown products in the mummies’ hair. This process is not unlike studying tree rings. Hair closer to the root is more recently grown and thus tends to contain chemicals reflecting the most recent dietary habits. For the “maiden,” the researchers were able to trace diet over the 21 months before death. It appears she consumed more coca and chicha than the two other children, they found. The data indicate an irregular but strong, overall, increase in intake of both substances over the year before death, Wilson and colleagues found. Alcohol use in particular spiked sharply just before death. The maiden was consuming coca right until the end, with a chewed-up bundle of coca leaves still between her teeth, the scientists noted. The changes may reflect “an intentional and precise schedule of events,” Wilson and colleagues wrote. The younger children had much shorter hair than the maiden and thus their data went back only about a third as far—the researchers assumed hair growth of 1 cm (0.4 inches) per month. The capacocha ritual, held in honor of important imperial events, unfolded with the Inca sending a demand for tribute out to the provinces, including for physically perfect 4-to-16-year-old children. These would be sacrificed amid much ceremony and feasting in their honor. Death might occur by suffocation, a head blow or burial alive; in any case, the victims would be left buried in an elaborate mountaintop grave. The ritual would inevitably have created a “climate of fear” among subject peoples of the Inca Empire, Wilson and colleagues wrote, although elaborate pretenses typically masked this fear. “This is implicit in comments made by the Spanish Jesuit missionary and writer Bernabé Cobo (1653) in relation to parents compelled to give up their children,” they added. Cobo wrote that “‘it was a major offense to show any sadness,’ and that ‘they were obliged to do it with gestures of happiness and satisfaction, as if they were taking their children to bestow upon them a very important reward.’”