AREQUIPA, Peru – Juanita, the frozen mummy that first revealed the ancient Inca practice of sacrificing young virgins, continues to amaze with her surprising state of preservation more than 20 years after her discovery at the summit of Ampato volcano, more than 6,300 meters (20,600 feet) above sea level.
Both experts and tourists who visit her remains in the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries at the Catholic University of Santa Maria (UCSM), in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, are astonished by how well her body is preserved, so well that every detail of her face, her skin and even her veins can be studied.
There, long after the international commotion her discovery caused in 1995, she lies at rest protected by a double urn that keeps her body at -19 C (-2 F) in the same position that US archaeologist Johan Reinhard found it almost by accident.
“Juanita changed my life, she gave me work,” he told EFE scathingly, as he recalled that the discovery of this 13-year-old girl, chosen as a fine offering to the Inca gods, drove him to make his later discovery of three mummies on Argentina’s Llullaillaca volcano, whose state of preservation is even better.
Though they’re called mummies, Juanita and her like on Llullaillaco, the world’s highest archaeology center at an altitude of 6,700 meters (22,000 feet), were never mummified to preserve their bodies, but were sacrificed with their organs intact and since then the ice has kept them looking like they did the day they died.
“Freezing is the best way to preserve bodies. In these cases even the blood inside them is maintained,” Reinhard said.
The archaeologist regretted that Juanita’s face, unlike her Argentine relatives, is not so well preserved, since she fell 200 meters (655 feet) down the volcano’s crater and lost some of the tissues covering her face, just two weeks before she was discovered.
Until that moment Juanita had remained buried in ice and snow for more than 500 years, but the eruption of the Sabancaya volcano next to Ampato thawed her tomb and left her exposed to the weather after her fall.
“At that time I saw she was a woman and knew that, up to then, there was no evidence of women’s bodies being frozen in the Inca culture,” said Reinhard, who didn’t hesitate to backpack the frozen body weighing some 44 kilos (97 lbs.) down the mountain to avoid further damage.
Later research has shown that Juanita, probably a native of the Peruvian high plateau, was chosen like many other virgin girls in the Inca Empire to be sacrificed to its gods.
Reinhard warned, however, that the thawing of glaciers due to global warming puts their remains in danger, because if they thaw as was happening to Juanita, it takes only days for them to decompose – that has already occurred with other virgin sacrifices found on nearby Misti volcano.