Monday, October 01, 2007

Scientists uncover Inca children's countdown to sacrifice

Hair samples from naturally preserved child mummies discovered at the world's highest archaeological site in the Andes have provided a startling insight into the lives of the children chosen for sacrifice. Researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust used DNA and stable isotope analysis to show how children as young as 6-years old were "fattened up" and taken on a pilgrimage to their death.

A team of scientists led by Dr Andrew Wilson at the University of Bradford analysed hair samples taken from the heads and from small accompanying bags of four mummies found in the Andes. These included the 15-year old "Llullaillaco Maiden" and the 7-year old "Llullaillaco Boy" whose frozen remains were found in 1999 at a shrine 25m from the summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a 6,739m volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile. The Maiden, described as a "perfect mummy" went on display for the first time last month in Salta, northwest Argentina.

Dr Wilson and colleagues studied DNA and stable light isotopes from the hair samples to offer insight into the lives of these children. Unlike samples of bone collagen and dental enamel, which give an average reading over time, hair growth allows scientists to capture a unique snapshot at different intervals over time, helping build up a picture of how the children were prepared for sacrifice over a period of months. The results are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Pretty cool, I think.