Vera Giraudo
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Frozen in Time: The Children of Llullaillaco

— Vera Giraudo

In 1999, a group of archaeologists hiked 22,100 feet above sea level to the summits of the Argentinian Andes, the highest archeological site in the world. They would go on to discover a total of 115 mummies, including the corpses of three 500-year-old Inca children. These children, buried in a dark cave atop Mount Llullaillaco, would later be described as the “best preserved” mummies on Earth.

The three corpses included those of one boy (5-6 years old) and two girls, one also 5-6 years old and the other—known as “The Maiden”—estimated to have been 16 years old. The children, along with the other 112 mummies, are believed to have been sacrificed in Capacocha rituals performed in Inca society. What makes these three children special is how well preserved they are.

The incredible preservation of these mummies is due to the fact that they were buried in permafrost, soil that has been frozen for multiple years. In cold temperatures, molecular activity in organisms slows, causing them to enter a dormant stage that delays the rotting process. Typically, decomposition occurs when gut flora (a population of microbes present in your digestive tract) breaks down tissues. This results in more bacteria in the body and an increase in gasses like hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and methane. Because of this, the body starts to look disfigured and emit strong odors. None of this can occur, however, if the microbiome is inactive due to cold stress and unable to break down cells. 

Simply freezing organisms does not perfectly preserve them. Ice crystals can cause major damage to cell membranes and result in ruptures and tearing. Freezing can also cause organs to expand, resulting in the bloating and damage found on other nearby mummies. However, all of the organs and skin of the children of Llullaillaco were intact, with “The Maiden” even having perfectly frozen blood in her heart. Scientists believe this was because their bodies froze quickly before fully dehydrating. Burial positioning and time could also be contributing factors.

The mummies are so well preserved that they look as if they’re sleeping, able to wake up at any moment. They are a testament to the natural preservation of the Andes Mountains and provide us with a glimpse of the past and what life could have looked like in the Inca Empire.


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