Embalmed bodies of Incan women in Chile wore poison-laced dresses

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The foul fates that have befallen archaeologists who desecrate a mummy


The ghastly deaths that have befallen archaeologists who dare to open the tombs of ancient mummies have become the stuff of legend and Hollywood blockbusters. 

But in the case of a recent find in Chile, there may be more than superstition at work, after experts uncovered two embalmed bodies clothed in poison-laced dresses.

Researchers discovered the presence of cinnabar, the main mineral from which the toxic mercury is extracted, covering the robes and grave goods.

High levels of mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages.

The two young embalmed women, aged 9 and 18, appear to have been sacrificed as part of an Incan religious rite between 500 and 600 years ago.

This is believed to be the first time the substance has been associated with a burial from the region.

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The foul fates that have befallen archaeologists who desecrate a mummy’s tomb are the stuff of legend. But in the case of a recent find in Chile there may be more than scare stories at work, after experts uncovered two embalmed bodies clothed in poison-laced dresses (pictured)

In an article for Forbes, Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist and science communicator, revealed the deadly details found in the latest findings.

Cinnabar was discovered by a research team led by Bernardo Arriaza, of the University of Tarapacá, in Chile.

This is not the first time the red colouring has been found in clothing and other items, with the colour prized for thousands of years by ancient Andean cultures.

Iron oxide-containing ores like hematite were more commonly used to source the rusty colour, as it was more readily available and easier to source.

Previous research on the mummified remains showed the two girls, dated to around 1399 to 1475 AD, were victims of ritual sacrifice, suggesting a possible reason for the use of the rarer mineral.

Speaking to Forbes, Dr Arriaza: ‘Very few archaeological studies have specifically addressed the use of toxic materials in antiquity.

‘Archaeologists need to be aware that beautiful red cinnabar contains mercury, posing hidden health risks. 

‘It may cause a range of health problems affecting the nervous and muscular systems and the gastrointestinal tract, among others, and even death in cases of extreme exposure.’

Researchers discovered the presence of cinnabar (pictured), the main mineral from which toxic mercury is extracted, in the robes and grave goods 

Researchers discovered the presence of cinnabar (pictured), the main mineral from which toxic mercury is extracted, in the robes and grave goods 

WHAT IS THE MINERAL CINNABAR?

Cinnabar is a toxic mercury sulfide mineral with a chemical composition of HgS. 

It is the only important ore of mercury. 

It has a bright red colour that has caused people to use it as a pigment and carve it into jewellery and ornaments for thousands of years in many parts of the world. 

Cinnabar is a toxic mercury sulfide mineral with a chemical composition of HgS. It is the only important ore of mercury (stock image)

Because it is toxic, its pigment and jewellery uses have almost been discontinued. 

Cinnabar is a hydrothermal mineral that is formed from deposits in hot waters and vapours as they move downward through fractured rocks.

It forms at shallow depths where temperatures are less than about 200°C (390°F). 

It usually forms in rocks surrounding geologically recent volcanic activity, including openings in the planet’s crust called fumaroles, which emit steam and gases. It can also form near hot springs.

Capacocha was a ritual that most often took place after the death of an Inca king.

Local lords were required to select unblemished children, which were used to represent the ideal of human perfection.

Children were married and presented with sets of miniature human and llama figurines in gold, silver, copper and shell. The male figures have elongated earlobes and a braided headband and the female figurines wore their hair in plaits.

The children were then returned to their original communities, where they were honoured before being sacrificed to the mountain gods on the Llullaillaco Volcano.

The phrase Capacocha has been translated to mean ‘solemn sacrifice’ or ‘royal obligation.’

This type of sacrificial rite is believed to have been undertaken to commemorate important life events of the Incan emperor, to send the Incan royalty to be with he gods upon their death, to stop natural disasters, encourage crop growth, or for religious ceremonies.

The two young women, aged 9 and 18, appear to have been sacrificed as part of an Incan religious rite between 500 and 600 years ago. This is reportedly the first time the substance has been associated with a burial from the region. Pictured are grave goods uncovered

The two young women, aged 9 and 18, appear to have been sacrificed as part of an Incan religious rite between 500 and 600 years ago. This is reportedly the first time the substance has been associated with a burial from the region. Pictured are grave goods uncovered

The mummies were first discovered in 1976 in Cerro Esmeralda in the city of Iquique in northern Chile and first described scientifically by Jorge Checura.

Checura says the girls had travelled from Cusco, where elaborate goods found inside their grave were from.

This is a trip that would have taken several months, adding weight to the importance of their sacrifice.

‘The new chemical analyses that we obtained showed that cinnabar was present in the clothes of the Cerro Esmeralda mummies,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.

‘This toxic material is a special and foreign funerary offering in northern Chile.

‘The Incas – and, in general, all the societies that supplied themselves with cinnabar from Huancavelica – always used this mineral in prestigious and elite social contexts.’

The full findings were published in the Wiley journal Archaeometry

The mummies were discovered in 1976 in Cerro Esmeralda in the city of Iquique in northern Chile and first described scientifically by Jorge Checura 

The mummies were discovered in 1976 in Cerro Esmeralda in the city of Iquique in northern Chile and first described scientifically by Jorge Checura 

WHY DID ANCIENT SOUTH AMERICAN CULTURES SACRIFICE THEIR CHILDREN?

Child sacrifice seems to have been a relatively common occurrence in the cultures of ancient Peru, including the pre-Incan Sican, or Lambayeque culture and the Chimu people who followed them, as well as the Inca themselves.

Among the finds revealing this ritual behaviour are the mummified remains of a child’s body, discovered in 1985 by a group of mountaineers.

The remains were uncovered at around 17,388ft (5,300 metres) on the southwestern ridge of Cerro Aconcagua mountain in the Argentinean province of Mendoza.

Child sacrifice seems to have been a relatively common occurrence in the cultures of ancient Peru. Among the finds revealing this ritual behaviour were the mummified remains of a child's body (pictured), discovered in 1985 by a group of mountaineers

Child sacrifice seems to have been a relatively common occurrence in the cultures of ancient Peru. Among the finds revealing this ritual behaviour were the mummified remains of a child’s body (pictured), discovered in 1985 by a group of mountaineers

The boy is thought to have been a victim of an Inca ritual called capacocha, where children of great beauty and health were sacrificed by drugging them and taking them into the mountains to freeze to death.

Ruins of a sanctuary used by the Inca to sacrifice children to their gods was discovered by archaeologists in at a coastal ruin complex in Peru in 2016.

Experts digging at Chotuna-Chornancap, in north Lima, discovered 17 graves dating to at least the 15th century. This included the graves of six children placed side by side in pairs of shallow graves. 

Capacocha was a ritual that most often took place upon the death of an Inca king. The local lords were required to select unblemished children representing the ideal of human perfection.

Ruins of a sanctuary used by the Inca to sacrifice children to their gods was discovered by archaeologists in at a coastal ruin complex in Peru in 2016. Experts digging at Chotuna-Chornancap (pictured), in north Lima, discovered 17 graves dating to at least the 15th century

Ruins of a sanctuary used by the Inca to sacrifice children to their gods was discovered by archaeologists in at a coastal ruin complex in Peru in 2016. Experts digging at Chotuna-Chornancap (pictured), in north Lima, discovered 17 graves dating to at least the 15th century

Children were married and presented with sets of miniature human and llama figurines in gold, silver, copper and shell. The male figures have elongated earlobes and a braided headband and the female figurines wore their hair in plaits.

The children were then returned to their original communities, where they were honoured before being sacrificed to the mountain gods on the Llullaillaco Volcano. 

The phrase Capacocha has been translated to mean ‘solemn sacrifice’ or ‘royal obligation.’

The rationale for this type of sacrificial rite has typically been understood as commemorating important life events of the Incan emperor, to send them to be with the deities upon their death, to stop natural disasters, to encourage crop growth or for religious ceremonies. 





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