In the past 500 years, humanity has come a long distance in the way we treat children, women, animals, those of other faiths, and members of other cultures; see Steve Pinker’s superb new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for the documentation. A graphic example of this progress comes from a new paper in PLoS ONE by Angelique Corthals et al. (free download). It’s about infections in children ritually sacrificed by the Incas.
In 1999, a group of archaeologists discovered the preserved bodies of three children near the summit of a high volcano in Argentina. Dating back about five centuries, they included a 6-year old girl, a 7-year old boy, and a 15-year old girl. All of them had been sacrificed to the gods by the horrible practice of capacocha, as described by Wikipedia:
Capacocha was the Inca practice of human sacrifice, mainly using children. The Incas performed child sacrifices during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca (emperor) or during a famine. Children were selected as sacrificial victims as they were considered to be the purest of beings. These children were also physically perfect and healthy, because they were the best the people could present to their gods. The victims may be as young as 6 and as old as 15.
Months or even years before the sacrifice pilgrimage, the children were fattened up. Their diets were those of the elite, consisting of maize and animal proteins. They dressed the children in fine clothing and jewelry and escorted them to Cuzco to meet the emperor where a feast was held in their honor. More than 100 precious ornaments were found to be buried with these children in the burial site.
The Incan high priests took the victims to high mountaintops for sacrifice. As the journey was extremely long and arduous, especially so for the younger victims, coca leaves were fed to them to aid them in their breathing so as to allow them to reach the burial site alive. Upon reaching the burial site, the children were given an intoxicating drink to minimize pain, fear, and resistance, then killed them either by strangulation, a blow to their head or by leaving them to lose consciousness in the extreme cold and die of exposure.
The bodies had been exceptionally well preserved over five centuries because they were buried 20 cm underground in freezing temperatures, and the tombs packed with volcanic ash and covered with compacted snow.
Here are three photos taken from the paper; the caption is “a) La Doncella (the Maiden); b) El Niño (the Boy); and c) La Niña (the Girl)”. The Maiden was the 15-year old, and the one studied for infection. Her hair is finely braided. You’ll find these pictures ineffably moving; they look just like children from modern Peru:
Child sacrifice was not rare in pre-Columbian cultures. Here’s a description of an equally noxious practice of some Aztecs:
Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.
At any rate, the PLoS One paper involved an analysis of blood samples and mouth swabs of the mummies using “proteomics,” the practice of isolating proteins from body fluids and identifying them by mass spectrometry. I won’t describe the complicated procedure, which you can read about here, but the aim was to see whether the children carried infections (the youngest girl wasn’t sampled as her body had apparently been struck by lightning). There were preliminary signs that the older girl was indeed ill; as the paper notes:
Computed tomography (CT) scanning and radiological examinations of the Maiden revealed that all her organs, including the eyes and the brain, were intact. Both radiological and visual examination revealed pathologies consistent with a range of infectious diseases: 1) a radiolucent area in the upper lobe of the right lung, 2) a mucosal enlargement of the left maxillary sinus consistent with sinusitis, 3) a zoster-like lesion on the right calf, and 4) streaks of mucus under both nostrils.
The proteomic analysis showed several proteins in the Maiden (but not the boy) consistent with infection: proteins produced by the body to fight off microbes. Several of these indicated a pretty severe inflammation of the lungs, presumably by mycobacteria. This was confirmed by finding proteins from the Mycobacterium itself. Since Mycobacterium tuberculosis is one of the causes of tuberculosis, it’s possible that, even at age 15, she’d already contracted TB.
The question here may seem narrow, but does have broader implications, particularly in investigating via proteomics what diseases afflicted ancient people. Proteins can last a lot longer than DNA, and are less subject to contamination, so looking at the proteins of both pathogen and host (i.e., those proteins involved in the host’s immune response) can tell us about the health of our ancestors. The authors also note that the technique can help identify the state of infection from analysis of blood in modern criminal cases, which I suppose can sometimes be useful.
But what stays with me after having read the paper are the photos of the children, needlessly slaughtered—as were so many adults—in the name of a nonexistent deity. Religion has poisoned everything for a long time.
Corthals A, Koller A, Martin DW, Rieger R, Chen EI, et al. (2012) Detecting the Immune System Response of a 500 Year-Old Inca Mummy. PLoS ONE 7(7): e41244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041244