Child Sacrifice, Chica & Travels
I’ve just returned from the best part of a month travelling in Peru and Bolivia and am, as you can imagine, eager to tie in a blog post to this phenomenal part of the world. A truly superb trip, taking in all the the usual great experiences from this part of the world – namely the Salt Flats, Machu Pichu and lake Titicaca. Of course, one of the great things about experiencing a completely new part of the world is the way in which we can be drawn into a culture and history completely alien to our own – none more so that a society which developed without European contact until the 16th Century.
Peru and Bolivia, as well as many other South American countries, share a strong strain of history from when the two territories fell under the Inca Empire.
Walking through the streets of Cusco, or in the wonderful wilderness of the ‘Inca Trail’ around Machu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes, this superb legacy is very difficult to ignore. Testimonies to the time, whether physical or spiritual, jut out from every view point. Many of our guides and porters still held true to Andean, or Inca, religious practices and had rejected Spanish culture and language to hold onto their own native heritage and traditions. One international constant however, is the challenging role alcohol can play in any society – in this case extremely disturbingly so.
Peru did not begin to produce wine until after the arrival of the Spanish, who brought with them the domestic vine, encouraging excessive plantings throughout the 1540s. The first South American vineyards in the world found their home here. However, the intervening centuries saw earthquakes, the rise of Pisco and a switch to cotton and rum production all contribute to the decline of Peruvian wine. This perhaps allowed the likes of Chile and Argentina to strip far ahead of the the cradle of Latin American viticulture, making these countries far more internationally renowned for their wines. There are still some top wines to be had from Peru however, and I urge you to give them a go!
This post’s tale largely pre-dates the Spanish arrival however, as so I hope you will forgive the slightly off-wine topic, but the combination of alcohol and a dark historical episode is too good to ignore…
Walking through the markets and old streets of Cusco it’s very easy to be drawn into the wonderful myth of Inca society. A peaceful, ambitious Empire who conquered largely by consent, ruled by agreement and encouraged religious freedom – largely. In a tantalising little excerpt from a museum within the Sun Temple of Cusco (Qorichanka) I stumbled across a Spanish Chronicler’s diary of the Inca year. Amidst the usual descriptions of husbandry, agricultural customs and religious festivities, he revealed the darker side to this Inca-redible world. In it he made reference to the practice of mass ‘child sacrifice’; describing how hundreds of children would be ploughed into the soil ensuring a good crop for the following year – almost in passing. Perhaps understandably, this was not really expanded upon within the museum – or anywhere else we encountered on our travels for that matter.
Reading around the topic a little bit more, we find that right at the centre of these ritualistic sacrifices is alcohol. These were not the mass murders of innocents as described by the Spanish, but rather the carefully selected and extremely carefully orchestrated indulgences of a powerful, highly religious state. Disturbingly, it seems that ‘victims’ were selected a year in advance of their sacrifice. They would be kept drunk (usually with a local drink known as chicha, a fermented maize drink), as well as intoxicated with coca – helping them achieve a sacred, albeit subdued, state. Young girls and boys were picked at an early age, given a year of indulgences centred around food and drink, and then left in a symbolic location (usually at high altitude) to meet their makers. Or as 2013 Daily Mail headline put it;
“Drugged with beer and cocaine and left to freeze to death”.
We know more about these victims from mummified remains, like those discovered in 1999, entombed in a shrine near the summit of the 6,739m-high Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina. These remarkably well preserved remains provided a careful snapshot of a teenage girl brought to her death after being elevated from peasantry to the height of Inca society – a sacrifice. The chica would undoubtedly have made the whole experience seem dreamlike, mystical and perhaps divine. Evaluation of her long, carefully-maintained hair certainly showed her consumption of alcohol went up exponentially in the weeks preceding her death. The alcohol would have also stopped her shivering as she sat, abandoned in a cave nearly 7,000 metres up – the climax of a year spent in preparation for that moment.