Hair and Sacrifice in the Andean World, as deduced by biomolecular approaches

Andrew Wilson

Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Bradford, BD7 1DP, UK.

Cite this as: Wilson, A. 2016 Hair and Sacrifice in the Andean World, as deduced by biomolecular approaches, Internet Archaeology 42.

An individual's first haircut is considered to be a major milestone in many world cultures and religions even today. It is interesting to note therefore that children placed as Inca child sacrifices in shrines on a number of the principal mountains in the Andes were found with many offerings, including small bags made of animal intestines containing cut human hair. The exceptional preservation of these young individuals offers huge potential for us to gain insight into the ritual process, given that most have remained in permafrost conditions since they were left on the mountain as part of the state-sanctioned Capacocha ceremony practised by the Inca.

Interdisciplinary research on the three individuals discovered close to the 6739m summit of Volcano Llullaillaco in north-west Argentina in 1999 has concentrated on the information embodied in their hair and the hair offerings that accompanied them. The eldest of the three individuals, known as the 'Llullaillaco Maiden', or 'La Doncella', has received most attention, not least because her hair was long and elaborately braided (Wilson et al. 2007; 2013; Figure 1) and because the biomolecular information retrieved from her hair presents a powerful and distinctive narrative about her in the final months leading up to her death.

Hair length is particularly important in bioarchaeological analyses, since from a very practical standpoint it offers the greatest insight into recent lifeways. Scalp hair grows on average roughly 1cm per month and as an incremental tissue can provide a detailed diachronic picture of chemical signatures that not only reflect patterns of dietary variation, but can also evidence physiological stress (e.g. disease, starvation, pregnancy and lactation), residential movement, and ingestion of alcohol and other substances (Wilson 2005; Thompson et al. 2014).

Figure 1: The Llullaillaco Maiden. Image credit: Andrew Wilson.
Figure 1: The Llullaillaco Maiden. Image credit: Andrew Wilson

The Llullaillaco Maiden's hair at roughly 28cm in length offered more than two years-worth of data, evidencing transformative stages in the ritual process that culminated in her death. Most stark is the change in dietary intake twelve months before death. Variations in diet are often intimately linked to status and the dietary changes seen in the case of the Llullaillaco Maiden's hair in essence show transition from a protein-poor highland C3 peasant diet to one characterised by elite foods. The change was rapid and involved both increased protein intake and a dramatic change resulting from consumption of C4 plants, indicative of maize. The magnitude of this change is noteworthy in that we also see that the dietary shift correlates with the start of a sustained chewing of coca leaves - with this elevation of status, the Maiden's fate was sealed.

Significant among the biomolecular data is the fact that genetic analysis showed that the bagged human hair did indeed come from each of the individuals with whom they were associated. Crucial then is the timing of when the hair was cut. Conventional notions of hair cutting rites see this type of activity most commonly undertaken at a young age and initially therefore the assumption was that these individuals each went to their death with a childhood lock of hair. Yet, the serial isotopic measurements of both the scalp hair and the bagged hair were compared and the marked status shift twelve months before death was used to match the trend data in both samples, allowing us to pinpoint when the hair was cut - some six months before death.

The logistics involved in working at high elevation to prepare the mountaintop shrines and build structures, coupled with the logistics and timescales involved in selecting and bringing these children to the mountain, and the richness of the textiles, ceramics, statues and other offerings placed with them at these high-elevation shrines each point to the highest level of Imperial support. The rite that involved the cutting of the Maiden's hair that was then bagged and carried with her to the mountaintop surely then saw the Maiden separated from normal elite status, perhaps as part of a ceremony at the Imperial capital of Cuzco.

Her hair again tells us when her mountain pilgrimage began. This phase of her journey was sustained by maize stored in waystations (tambos) along the Inca road network, prepared with water from different altitudes, and is reflected in the marked trend in changing carbon and oxygen isotope ratios in her hair over the final three months. The Maiden was found with cooking equipment and bags of dried llama camelid meat and maize, suggesting belief in a further phase of solo travel after death.

Final pieces of chemical evidence from the Maiden's hair as her placement on the mountaintop drew nearer within her last few weeks, show that the coca leaves she had chewed since her status had first changed were now being consumed together with the alcoholic maize drink chicha. Finally, the neat and elaborate tight braiding of her hair indicates preparation in the very last days and hours, and may well have been the symbolic prelude to her ultimate separation from the living world and the commencement of an envisaged onward journey towards final incorporation in the realm of the gods.

These analyses offer clear insight into a complex ritual sequence and showcase the potential for detailed diachronic information from hair. The direct nature of this chilling evidence allows the children once again to recount their stories, which resonate with and amplify chroniclers' accounts that post-date the Spanish conquest (Wilson et al. 2007; 2013). The fate of the Maiden was undoubtedly sealed when she became an Aclla (or chosen woman) around puberty. These individuals are described as living a separate existence under the guardianship of priestesses, learning specialised skills including weaving and chicha production and ultimately being given to local nobles as wives, being confirmed as priestesses, or killed as part of the Imperial capacocha rite (Wilson et al. 2013).


Thompson, A.H., Wilson, A.S. and Ehleringer, J.R. 2014 'Hair as a geochemical recorder: ancient to modern', in T.E. Cerling (ed) Treatise on Geochemistry (vol. 14): Archaeology & Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Elsevier. 371-393.

Wilson, A.S. 2005 'Hair as a bioresource in archaeological study', in D.J. Tobin (ed.) Hair in Toxicology: an Important Biomonitor, Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry. 321-345.

Wilson, A.S., Taylor, T., Ceruti, M.C., Chavez, J.A., Reinhard, J., Grimes, V., Meier-Augenstein, W., Cartmell, L., Stern, B., Richards, M.P., Worobey, M., Barnes, I. and Gilbert, M.T.P. 2007 'Stable isotope and DNA evidence for ritual sequences in Inca child sacrifice', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(42). 16456-16461.

Wilson, A.S., Brown, E.L., Villa, C., Lynnerup, N., Healey, A., Ceruti, M.C., Reinhard, J., Previgliano, C.H., Araoz, F.A., Diez, J.G. and Taylor, T. 2013 'Archaeological, radiological, and biological evidence offer insight into Inca child sacrifice', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(33). 13322-13327.

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