The “Llullaillaco Maiden,” a 13-year-old girl that was chosen to be an Inca sacrifice, was given a steady diet of alcohol and coca for a year prior to her death. Researchers were able to analyze strands of the girl’s hair for evidence of cocaine and alcohol leading up to her sacrifice at the Llullaillaco Volcano.


The child sacrifice, as well as two other bodies, a 6-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy, was first discovered in 1999, and their bodies were incredibly well-preserved. According to the researchers, the children were probably human sacrifices and part of an Incan ritual. Led by Andrew Wilson, from the University of Bradford, researchers performed a biochemical analysis of the child’s hair to determine her diet prior to death. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

Based on her hair length, the researchers were able to develop a two-year record of the girl’s diet. “Substances such as cocaine and alcohol leave markers, which can tell us how much the person was consuming when that section of hair was growing. From the Maiden’s hair, we have a two-year time line running up to her death, showing us some of what she ate and drank,” Wilson said.

The researchers looked for markers in the hair of the three children that would indicate cocaine usage, from coca leaves, and alcohol consumption. The two younger children had markers that indicated alcohol and coca leaf consumption was consistent prior to their death. The analysis of the older girl’s hair revealed several peaks of coca and alcohol consumption and higher levels of usage than the two other children.

According to the researchers, the Maiden had a dramatic consumption increase 12 months prior to her death followed by another period of increased consumption six months later. In the last weeks of her life, coca and alcohol consumption was at its highest, possibly to sedate her prior to the sacrifice ritual.

The Maiden was found with coca leaves in her mouth and was probably sedated prior to her death inside the burial chamber. “We think it’s likely the Maiden was selected for sacrifice 12 months before her death, after which her treatment changed, corresponding to the sharp increase in coca consumption," Wilson said. "She was then probably involved in a series of rituals, involving consumption of coca and alcohol, in the build up to her sacrifice, which kept consumption at a steady level.” Wilson noted the consumption was highly controlled as coca and alcohol held a lot of significance for ritual usage in Inca society.

The likely cause of death was exposure, due to the high altitude the bodies were found, and there is no indication the children were physically abused or mistreated prior to their death. The Maiden was found in a burial chamber surrounded by ritual artifacts. The researchers believe the girl was heavily drugged at the time of her placement inside the burial chamber.

Wilson said the children may have been chosen to become a ritual sacrifice by the Inca-ruled communities and the selection may have been seen as a point of pride or an honor. Co-author Johan Reinhard, National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, noted the significance of the research and pointed out the Maiden and the two other children could provide further discoveries and insights into Inca life.