The Incas, though never numbering more than 100,000 as an ethnic group, succeeded in creating the largest native empire in the New World until 1533. ‘Capacocha’ was the Inca practice of human sacrifice and recent discoveries in 1995 and 1999 have prompted further questions into this culture. In 1995, a frozen girl was found on Mount Ampato, sacrificed more than 500 years ago on the 22,000ft volcano, and thought to be drugged with coca leaves and alcohol before being left to freeze to death. In 1999, three more Inca children were discovered, all now exhibited in Argentina. But why was a practice that sounds so brutal, carried out by the Incas?
The Inca emperor, Pachacutec, or ‘overturner of worlds’ began the subjugation of nearby provinces, continued by his successors. They succeeded in building an empire that included taxpaying peasants, local governors and administrators, and a cooperative elite. It is interesting to picture the contrast between the Incas seemingly advanced state structure and bureaucracy compared to what, today, we might consider the barbaric practice of sacrifice. Incas, of course, were not the first culture to turn to sacrifice; the Celts of Ireland and Britain, Mongols, Scythians, early Egyptians, and Mesoamerican groups all made human sacrifices for various reasons.
Interestingly, whilst sacrifice carries plenty of religious connotations, geography has a huge part to play. The Inca Empire straddled the Andes Mountains, a chain created by the Nazca tectonic plate slowly smashing into the South American plate. This area, known as the Pacific’s ‘ring of fire’ is extremely volatile, prone to frequent volcano eruptions and earthquakes. The empire was also wrecked by savage floods, disrupting food supplies and destroying cities.
Sacrifice was the Inca solution to these destructive natural disasters. The Incas believed the natural world was controlled by a hierarchy of Gods, whom they sought to create and maintain reciprocal and favorable relationships with. The primary god was the sun god, Inti, who made agriculture possible. Offerings to gods ranged from prayers, food and woven cloth all the way to animal and, ultimately, human sacrifice. The level of sacrifice corresponded to the uncertainty of the disaster; for example, when an emperor died, volcanoes erupted or famine struck, priests sacrificed captured warriors or Inca children.
The children involved were specially raised for sacrifice. Children were considered to be the purest of beings and therefore the best the people could present to the gods. Victims were generally aged between six and fifteen. Months before the sacrifice pilgrimage, the children were fattened up on animal meat and maize – the diet of the elite Incas. At Cuzco, the Inca capital, a feast was held in their honour and they were dressed in fine clothing and jewelry. Archaeological excavations turned up more than 100 precious ornaments buried with these children, illustrating the commitment of the Inca people to pleasing the gods.
The sacrificial pilgrimage took the priests and children to the mountain tops. Coca leaves were fed to the children to aid their breathing on the long and arduous journey. At the burial site, the children are thought to have been drugged to minimize pain, fear and resistance. The sacrificing act itself was usually carried out by strangulation, a blow to the head, or freezing to death.
Such brutality prompts us to ask how could people commit such acts. The answer can be found in religion once more; the Incas believed in an afterlife and that the children they sacrificed would be more abundantly provided for in a better world. The Incas were doing their best to fathom what, to us, is now predictable via calculations, satallites and and a better geographical understanding of the natural world. They believed they were doing their best to ensure the survival of their people and empire.