Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Technologies and the Study of Mummies

What kinds of technological advances can be used to improve the study of mummies such as those from the Inca Empire? How do those advances contribute to research?

Radiocarbon dating is one important process that researchers use to date finds of unknown age, including human remains. This process, as described by Reinhard (2005), makes use of carbon 14, which is found in living things and decays constantly over time. Every 5,560 years (a ‘half-life’), half of the carbon 14 present decays into nitrogen 14. Scientists can then compare levels of carbon 14 to expected atmospheric levels in order to determine an approximate age, going as far back as 45,000 to 50,000 years ago (American Chemical Society, 2010). Reinhard discusses this procedure in the context of his work with the Ice Maiden, one of the most famous of the Capacocha mummies. Dr. Irv Taylor used carbon dating of the Ice Maiden’s hair to determine that she lived approximately 530 years ago (Reinhard, 2005). In the context of his work, such a date is important to Reinhard because it helps to determine with greater accuracy when the sacrifice occurred, which he concludes may have not been long after Inca conquest of the region. Dating techniques, used in this way, could continue to provide greater insight regarding the timeline of Inca conquest and the relation of the sacrifices to those conquests, especially with regards to the arrival of the Spanish.

The technology for radiocarbon dating is not a particularly new advance; however, researchers continue to make progress in improving its effectiveness and usefulness as a tool of study. An American Chemical Society press release from 2010 discusses a new method in which an object is placed inside a special chamber with plasma, which produces carbon dioxide from used for C-14 analysis. Older methods involve taking a sample of the object to be analyzed. While the samples can be small, even slight samples can have negative consequences on delicate objects or objects with particular ethical and legal responsibilities associated, such as human remains (American Chemical Society, 2010). The benefit of this new method is that it eliminates the need for taking samples. Richardin, Gandolfo, Carminati, and Walter (2011) outline a new method for eliminating contaminating traces of carbon from hair samples taken from mummies (p. 380). This is especially important because, as they mention, while the analysis of bones using sampling methods has been advanced to the point of becoming generally reliable, in the case of mummies, preservation concerns limit such analysis (p. 379). Instead of risking damage to the remains, researchers have looked at increasing the accuracy of less destructive methods. In such ways, while the essence of radiocarbon dating is not new to archaeology or to the study of human remains, continued advances in this area may aid future researchers in studying those remains in a manner that avoids the ethical, legal, and conservational consequences of more destructive methods.

CT scans, otherwise known as computed axial tomography, was once a scan used for medical purposes. However, this medical technology has proven to be useful in the study of mummies. According to The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary definition, a CT scan is “tomography used in diagnostic studies of internal bodily structures, in which computer analysis of a series of cross-sectional scans made along a single axis of a bodily structure or tissue is used to construct a three dimensional image of that structure”. However, archaeologists have been able to apply this technology to studying mummies as well. In fact, by applying this technology to ancient Egyptian mummies, archaeologists were able to find the oldest case of arterial disease known to science (Miyamoto, 2011). Another use for CT scan technology in researching mummies is to see how mummification happens. According to Luna, puncture holes, incisions, and other surgical modification can be revealed by CT scans to determine how mummification happens (Luna, 2007). This new technology could also be applied to mummies worldwide, and could provide insight when comparing mummification methods across the world.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is found within living cells and contains an collection of genetic information, gives scientists leads to endless amounts of information (Andes expedition, 1997). Joe Watkins in his article, Becoming American or becoming Indian, explains genetic analysis of DNA is one of the ways that modern technology has helped researchers identify biological affinity of human remains from the past (p. 75). According to Keith McKenney of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), the case of the Ice Maiden of Ampato, which was found southern Peru in 1995 by Johan Reinhard, reveals some of the best ancient DNA ever extracted. Scientists from TIGR extracted DNA from a ten-milligram sample of the ice maiden’s heart, and studied the mitochondrial DNA, which provides information about genetic origins (Andes expedition, 1997). After an extensive examination, scientists were able to determine the Ice Maiden as being related to Native Americans, but explain that her DNA sequence could not be matched within the database (Andes expedition, 1997). Because DNA is so extensive, our technology and databases are limited to the amount of information that we can take from certain ancient samples. In the future we should expect to see DNA technology significantly increase.

To see more applications of this technology:

The video Egyptian mummy CT scan video, Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History shows a series of images of an Egyptian mummy produced by using CT scans:

The video Explorer: Tech- Smart Mummies? shows investigation into mummies found in China, including the difficulties of the scientists to find a sample to be used for DNA testing:

Works Cited
Andes expedition searching for Inca secrets. (1997). Retrieved March 29, 2012 from
American Chemical Society. (2010, March 23). New method could revolutionize dating of ancient
     treasures. Author. Retrieved March 29, 2012, from
computerized axial tomography. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical 
     Dictionary. Retrieved March 28, 2012, from
Egyptian mummy CT scan video, Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History. (2011).       Smithsonian. Retrieved March 28, 2012 from
Explorer: Tech- Smart Mummies?. (2007). National Geographic. Retrieved March 28, 2012 from
Luna, K. (2007, August 29). Ct scans show how mummies were preserved. Quad-City Times
     Retrieved March 29, 2012 from
Miyamoto, M. (2011, April 15). Mummy in the machine. Retrieved March 29, 2012 from
Reinhard, J. (2005). The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the 
     Andes. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.
Richardin, P., Gandolfo, N., Carminati, P., &Walter, P. (2011). A new protocol for radiocarbon 
     dating of hair and keratin type samples- application to an Andean mummy from the National 
     Museum of Natural History in Paris. Archaeology and Anthropological Sciences, 3(4), 
     379- 384.
Watkins, J. (2004). Becoming American or becoming Indian?. Journal of Social Archaeology, 
     4(1), 60- 80.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Role of Mummies in the Structure of the Empire

How did the Incans maintain power over their empire?

In the National Geographic Special Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World (2009), it is noted that during the time of the Incan Empire, as few as 100,000 Incas were able to rule over 10 million subjects. In an interview, Terence D’Altroy, a professor of anthropology at Columbia, points to a combination of innovations and the continuation of existing structures as allowing the Inca to maintain control over this huge empire. The Inca moved many of those living in the lands they came to control, to increase the agricultural productivity of the empire or for political reasons, and created a vast system of roads (Tyson, 2010). However, the Inca also tried to present themselves as a larger version of the pre-existing system of local lords, seeking to create a system of mutual obligations that tied their subjects to the Empire (Tyson, 2010).

What was the role of the Capacocha sacrifices in the power structure of the Empire?

In addition to the religious associations of the Capacocha child sacrifices, these acts played an important role in the way that Inca rulers maintained control over the expanse of their Empire. Andrushko, Buzon, Gibaja, McEwan, Simonetti, and Creaser (2011) note that one reason such rituals would be performed would be to mark a historic event in the life of the emperor. Furthermore, they point out that the children selected were chosen from the far reaches of the Empire (2011).  This incorporation of children, and through them of villages, from well away from the center of the state into an event that could have as its primary cause the life of the person who most represented that state served as a form of bringing the more geographically isolated elements into closer association with the whole. Reinhard and Stenzel (1996) also comment on the unifying element of the sacrifices. They point out how the children were often taken to Cuzco, the capitol city, for celebrations before the sacrifice, refocusing attention on this center. Capacocha sacrifices also occurred on sacred mountains that had strong religious importance for the people of those areas; by holding this ritual in those places, the Inca authorities incorporated the deities of the mountain into the state religion (Reinhard, J., & Stenzel, M., 1996).

The element of honor of these rituals also enabled further Inca control by encouraging a desire to participate. The child involved in the sacrifice was thought to become a deity, and becoming such a sacrifice brought great honor and prestige to the family involved (Hammond, 1991). This is illustrated in the National Geographic Mummified Child Sacrifice video. Through analysis of a sample of hair from the mummy La Doncella, researchers learned that a year prior to her death, the girl’s diet shifted to include maize and animal proteins, markers of a noble diet. Such changes as diet were likely ways that those chosen to participate in Capacocha sacrifices experienced the honor of the act. It is possible that one of the reasons the Inca were so successful in expressing control in this way was because the people welcomed this honor.

What was the role of the royal mummies in the power structure of the Empire?

Baur and Rodríguez (2007) discuss an excavation hoping to uncover some of the royal mummies lost during the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. They remark that “when the Spaniards entered the city, they were amazed to see the mummies of previous kings and queens playing an active role in the politics of the day” (Baur, B.S., & Rodríguez, A.C., 2007). The mummies of previous Inca rulers were not separated from the day to day functioning of the empire. In the palaces, they were used as advisers to the current king, and the most trusted were used as ambassadors; at times throughout the year, the mummies were publically assembled in the plaza. Baur and Rodríguez explain this approach as a way to legitimize the current king. They argue that this display served as a physical, direct line of descent of divine leaders stretching back through time. Such proof of descent was perhaps particularly important for the Inca leaders because, in addition to the need to maintain the loyalty of the outer regions of the empire, there could often be internal power struggles. The Inca did not have a concept of primogeniture; legitimacy as a ruler was decided through success, fostering competition and disagreement (Tyson, 2010). In such a system, the ability to display a line of ancestors and predecessors may have been a way to further legitimize rule.

One of the topics discussed by Metcalf and Huntington in Celebrations of Death (1991) is the way that royal corpses are manipulated to serve the living (p. 135). Some of the examples they discuss include the use of effigies, such as with the Shilluk or in France, that represent the immortal kingship by representing the ruler or the power of the ruler in the period between the death of the old ruler and the time the new ruler formally takes power (p. 163, 173). With the French monarchy particularly, the effigy is made to resemble the king as closely as possible, and for several days it is treated as though it were the king himself (p. 175). Such a situation seems to draw an interesting parallel with the Inca example. There certainly seem to be important ideas of religion and ancestry involved with the treatment of Inca mummies; additionally, in the Inca practice the mummies continue to hold importance after a new ruler has taken power, while in France the effigies serve largely to hold the place for the next king. However, the line of leaders that was at times put on display in the plaza could be related to the importance of the idea of an immortal kingship that lives beyond individuals who may hold it for a time. In both situations, the divine right and inevitable continuity of leadership seem to be expressed to at least some extent.

Works Cited

Andrushko, V. A., Buzon, M. R., Gibaja, A. M., McEwan, G. F., Simonetti, A., & Creaser, R. A. 
     (2011). Investigating a child sacrifice event from the Inca heartland. Journal of 
     Archaeological Science, 38(2), 323- 333.
Bauer, B. S., & Rodríguez, A. C. (2007). The Hospital of San Andrés (Lima, Peru) and the 
     Search for the Royal Mummies of the Incas. Field Museum of Natural History.  
Hammond, N. (1991, May 28). Mummified body is key to Inca ritual. The Times.
Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World. (2009). National Geographic. Retrieved 
Metcalf, P., & Huntington, R. (1991). Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary 
     Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Mummified Child Sacrifice. (2009). National Geographic. Retrieved February 29, 2012 from 
Reinhard, J., & Stenzel, M. (1996). At 22,000 feet children of Inca sacrifice found frozen in time. 
     National Geographic, 196(5). 
Tyson, P. (Ed.). (2010, January). Rise of the Inca. Retrieved March 14, 2012, from 

National Geographic Videos

In the previous post, we included a link to the National Geographic Special on Inca Mummies (Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World). Around fifteen minutes into the program, there is discussion of some of the finds of the mummies of Capacocha child sacrifices. The importance of the mountains themselves in the ideology of the Inca and the results of techniques such as DNA testing are some of the topics covered in this portion of the show. However, the special also largely features a few additional sites, such as a settlement likely inhabited after the coming of the Spanish conquistadors and especially the cemetery site that was excavated from under the town of Tupac Amaru,

Although these topics of the program may not seem to have direct relevance to the cultural practices we are investigating, there are important aspects to note. One of the focuses of the special is the interaction of the past and the present through the presence of these mummies. Tupac Amaru is a site in which excavators had only ten weeks to work before the need for sewers and plumbing in the town would cause anything remaining to be destroyed. This conflict of archaeology and the needs of the population is an interesting question throughout the program which has not yet strongly impacted the excavation of Capacocha mummies, found in areas unlikely to be inhabited, but could in the future in some capacity. There is also the possibility that such conflicts may impact any possible future discoveries of royal mummies. The program also addresses the impact of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors on the Inca Empire. As this arrival not only drastically impacted the Incan people and their activities, such as mortuary practices, but also likely was a direct cause of the lack of surviving royal mummies (see Mummies of the world), this background has interesting applications to this study.

The second video (Mummified Child Sacrifice), also from National Geographic, addresses more directly Capacocha. It shows scientists taking samples of hair from the mummy named La Doncella to try and learn more about what her life was like prior to her death. This video is interesting in the way that it shows techniques used by scientists in such situations and also in the information actually gained from the process.

To make accessing these videos easier, they are both now linked at the top of the page.

Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World. (2009). National Geographic. Retrieved February 29, 
Mummified Child Sacrifice. (2009). National Geographic. Retrieved February 29, 2012 from 
Mummies of the world. (2000). Retrieved February 7, 2012, from

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What was the importance of the Capacocha sacrifice to the Inca people?

In the Inca culture the practice of Capacocha child sacrifice was performed, which offered young children to the gods. This ritual sacrifice was performed, “in response to catastrophes such as earth quakes, droughts and volcanic eruptions, as well as to mark historic events in the life of the emperor” (Andrushko, 2011). The sacrifice always took place high in the mountains, which is one of the primary reasons that researchers are able to find some of these remains today. The mountains where the Inca people lived were very important to them, and they worshipped the mountains because they believed the mountains controlled the weather, which is still practiced today (Berardelli, 1996). Research shows that in some cases the children involved with the sacrifice as being children of royalty or upper class, which meant this would help secure the “link” between the Inca Emperor and the gods (Hammond, 1991). Children were also viewed as being “purer than adults” and the sacrificed child was thought to have essentially become a deity, as well as, “a direct representative of the people, (who was) living with the gods forever after”(Reinhard, 2002). It was also important to the Inca that young boys and girls from all around the empire were sacrificed, in order to “unify” the empire (Andrushko, 2011).  The Capacocha child sacrifice ritual was truly a monumental part of Inca culture, and held huge importance within their religious beliefs. Throughout the semester we will explain individual examples of Capacocha sacrifice.    

What are some of the problems and ethical issues researches and scientists are dealing with when dealing with Inca Mummies?

           One of the primary issues that scientists and researchers are dealing with today is finding tombs that have not been looted by grave robbers. Because royal mummies are usually mummified with expensive belongings like gold, textiles, and ancient pottery, looters who sell the items on the black market seek their gravesites out. These items usually end up in personal collections, and never will be seen or evaluated by scientists or researchers (National Geographic: Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World”).   Johan Reinhard, an American high-altitude anthropologist who found the mummy “The Maiden of Ampato” explained that he was forced to move her down the mountain once he found her in fear that looters would destroy her tomb (Berardelli, 1996).

           Scientists and researchers must understand the areas and cultures where they work because as Jane Pratt, the president of the Mountain Institute, explains, “Rituals that are appropriate for one culture are not necessarily proper for all” (Berardelli, 1996).

            Governmental law and control of the land are also aspects that scientists and researchers must deal with when finding mummies. In the National Geographic Special: “Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World,” it explains some of these pressures of destroying mummified gravesites due to the population of the area increasing and expanding. Reinhard’s expedition, which found “The Maiden of Ampato,” needed to first convince the locals, native organizations, as well as the Peruvian government in order to transport the mummy back to the United States, where it then would go through various testing and studies (Berardelli, 1996). This elaborate process of getting permission from various organizations can be tough at times for scientists and researchers to properly study their subjects.
Because of these problems and issues, researchers and scientists face situations that make it hard to conduct adequate research on their subjects. Throughout the semester we will touch on each of these aspects.
The Maiden of Ampato 
Image from

National Geographic Special “Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World”
Video from

 Video from

Works Cited

Andrushko, V. A., Buzon, M. R., Gibaja, A. M., McEwan, G. F., Simonetti, A., & Creaser, R. A. 
     (2011). Investigating a child sacrifice event from the Inca heartland. Journal of 
     Archaeological Science, 38(2), 323- 333.

Berardelli, P. (1996, July 1). Inca mummy yields secrets. National Geographic, 12(1), 36.

Hammon, N. (1996, June 17). Mummified body is key to Inca ritual. Times Newspapers Limited Insight on the News

Inca Mummies: Secrets of the Lost World. (2009). National Geographic. Retrieved February 29, 

Mummified Child Sacrifice. (2009). National Geographic. Retrieved February 29, 2012 from 

Reinhard, J. (2002, May). At 22,000 feet children of Inca sacrifice found frozen in time. National Geographic