We spent our last couple of days in Argentina in Salta, in the far north west. It’s a town with a visibly more ethnic Bolivian population, locals with much darker skin, and much more traditional dress than we’ve seen elsewhere.
Salta was also once a distant outpost of the Inca empire, and the surrounding mountains contain many Inca relics. These include the mummified remains of child sacrifices made to appease Pachamama, in which honoured children were buried alive in full ceremonial dress at the summits of mountains, following many months of procession to and from the capital Cuzco, ‘marriages’ to children from other parts of the empire, and celebrations in the streets.
Over the past few decades, over a number of expeditions, archaeologists have excavated some of the grave sites, revealing extremely well preserved mummies, with many of the offerings and colourful dress appearing just as it was when the burial occurred 500 years ago. The freezing cold, dry conditions were perfect for preservation. Controversially, the decision was taken to remove the mummified remains from their mountaintop graves and to display them and their artefacts in a museum in Salta.
We went round the exhibition, and it was truly fascinating to see such fantastically preserved, brightly coloured textiles – and shocking to see the faces and parched skin of the sacrificed children, three of whom were recovered, aged 8 to 15.
It left me feeling deeply uncomfortable that the bodies had been removed from their place of rest; a gesture which seemed to undo the reason for their sacrifice in the first place, since they are no longer positioned to sit with the gods and watch over the valleys below. The exhibition itself attempted in part to address these concerns by pointing out that following the discovery, the unguarded grave could not be left as it would have been robbed, but it seemed to me this should have been something the archaeologists thought about before undertaking the excavation. The exhibition was very professional and the remains clearly being well maintained, but it certainly left me wondering at just what cost should we go digging up sacrificial offerings from distant cultures.