When people think of the Inca Empire, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Machu Picchu or the Inca capitol, Cusco. The reality though is that before the Spanish landed in the New World, the Inca Empire controlled a territory that spanned from Ecuador all the way to Argentina. While the heart of the Inca Empire resided in present day Peru, travelers to South America would be surprised to learn that one of the most remarkable Inca archaeological finds was actually found in Northern Argentina less than 15 years ago.
Los Niños de Llullaillaco
In 1999, archaeologists came across a religious burial over 22,000 feet above sea level near the summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a volcano near the border of Chile and Bolivia in the Argentinian state of Salta. The archaeologists were shocked by what they saw – three Inca children, buried on this cold, dry mountain top over 500 years ago. The children were so well preserved that they looked less like mummies and more like sleeping children.
Since the discover scientist have been studying the mummies, known to locals just as Los Niños, to learn more about the Inca Empire and culture. The children are considered the best preserved mummies ever found. The interesting part is that they were never purposely mummified but rather naturally preserved and mummified by the high, dry mountain environment. Eventually it was decided that the mummies should be displayed to the public and work began on the exhibit in the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, located in the city of Salta in Northern Argentina.
Museum of High Altitude Archaeology
The museum exhibit is home to a collection of artifacts found with the children and explains the story of these three mysterious children and their eventual deaths. Much has been learned from the children and their burial site. They were most likely royal or high class children chosen for their beauty, health, and perfection from around the Inca Empire to participate in a religious ritual known as capacocha. After ceremonies in Cusco, the children walked all the way from the capitol in modern day Peru to this remote mountain top in Argentina. The mountains of this region were thought to be gods and the children were to be sacrifices to the gods. The Inca did not believe the children would die but rather join the gods to look over the Inca people. At the top of the mountain top the children were given chicha (maize beer) and placed in underground niches once they were asleep where they froze to death.
At the museum, you can see one of the three children on display. The Maiden, the Boy, and the Girl of Lightening are displayed one at a time rotating every few months. Because of their nearly perfect mummification, a complex system was designed to keep them in near mountain top conditions. Located in a frozen chamber, the mummies are only visible when you push a button to turn on the light above them. The darkness keeps them well preserved as well as hiding them from visitors who don’t wish to view the dead children.
There are also a number of backup generators, in case of earthquakes, to keep the mummies frozen and preserved. The governor’s private plane is also on call in case of emergency to fly the mummies to a freezer in Buenos Aires.
The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology is located in the center of Salta, a city about 20 hours by bus from Buenos Aires. Only a limited number of guests are allowed into the museum each day and there is usually a line before the doors even open so it is best to show up early. The museum is actually quite small but take your time and be sure to read all the museum signs to learn all about the children, and what they have been able to tell scientists and archaeologists about the Inca culture.
Couple Travel Tips
- The temperature in the museum can be chilly so take a light jacket with you. It makes for a great escape on hot summer days though.
- There are a number of other interesting museums within walking distance. You can easily tour them all in an afternoon.
- Be respectful of the museum and be sure to follow all camera rules (no flash!). The Inca culture is still present in many of the mountain communities around Salta and many locals see the museum as a sort of church or religious site. The mummies have been put on display for the benefit of the public but do your part in preserving and respecting this unique historic and religious exhibit.
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