The concept of human sacrifice is one that seems completely foreign, barbaric even, to most of us today. There is something so sad, so senseless, in the deliberate ending of life for some imagined greater good, to influence completely unrelated natural phenomena, or to achieve glory in the afterlife.
I’ve already mentioned how women, children, and warriors would be killed to join shamans and lords in their tombs as companions in the afterlife. Then there was sacrifice to appease the gods, to ensure good weather and protect against natural disasters. At the Moche site of Huaca de la Luna outside Trujillo, around 70 skeletons have been found buried in the sacrificial chamber. The best warriors would fight each other with wooden clubs, with the loser – the one who lost his crown – having the honour of offering his life. He would be stripped naked, bound, and led to the place of sacrifice where his throat would be slit and his blood offered to the gods. The warriors would have been aged between 15 and 35.
Perhaps the most tragic manifestation of human sacrifice can be seen at the Museo Santuarios Andinos in Arequipa. The bodies of 18 children have been found in the mountains of Argentina and Peru, evidence of the Inca practice of ‘capocacha’. These children, considered to be pure and perfectly healthy, would have been led, ‘willingly’, on long pilgrimages to the place of sacrifice. They were found placed in the foetal position, dressed in ceremonial garments and surrounded by other offerings in the form of textiles, ceramics, miniature lamas… The most well-preserved, and therefore most famous, of the child sacrifices is Juanita ‘The Ice Princess’. Aged 12-14, she is thought to have been offered to the gods following an eruption of the El Misti volcano. She was discovered by the anthropologist Johan Reinhard (Juanita is the feminine form of Juan, Johan), on a climb in 1995. Having been naturally mummified in the ice, her skin, hair, and internal organs are incredibly well preserved. After more than 500 years on the mountain, she now continues this cold existence in a glass case maintained at -20°C at the museum. Killed by a blow to her right temple, that side of her head looks rather deformed; from the left, though, she looks quite beautiful.
As one article displayed at the museum put it, the discovery of Juanita is “attesting – depending on the crystal through which she is observed – the ceremonial richness and the mysterious beliefs of a bygone civilization, or the infinite cruelty with which human stupidity used to (and still does) allay its fears”. The Inca cosmology consisted of the underworld, ‘uku pacha’, the world of the dead (represented by a snake or a spider); the world of the living, ‘kay pacha’, represented by the feline (a puma or a jaguar); and the world of the gods, ‘hanan pacha’, represented by the birds of the heavens (an eagle, owl, or condor). Death in the world here on earth was simply the beginning of another life. In today’s more secular world, the idea of postponing happiness to a next life that is far from guaranteed, to say the least, has largely gone out of fashion. We care about the here and now, making the best out of the life we are living here on earth. And the idea of killing our children, or anyone for that matter, in a ritual sacrifice is repugnant. I can’t help but feel sad over the young men and women whose lives were cut short for these beliefs – whether by the Incas or the Aztecs, the Maya or the Vikings… But I find some comfort in the words of my granddad when faced with such tragedies of the past: they would have been dead now anyway.