On child sacrifice.
Other aspects of Inca culture, meanwhile, test the limits of what anthropologists call 'cultural relativism' - or not judging another culture using the standards of one's own. One example is capacocha - the ritual that involved child sacrifice.
I was reminded of this practice when I visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos here in Arequipa and learned about the children sacrificed in the high mountains of the Andes. As in many cultures, mountains were seen by the Incas as living gods; volcanic eruptions were seen as sign of divine anger (the Andean countries, like the Philippines, are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire), and the gods' appeasement (or favor, as in the case of human events like war) must be sought. Archeologists have also posited that the practice - which also included nonmountain sites - was a way of asserting imperial power (see Besom 2010).
Since the 1980s, several mountains have been discovered with burial sites of sacrificed children. In 1995, the anthropologist Johan Reinhard and colleagues discovered a 14-year-old girl near the 6,309-meter summit of Mount Ampato in Peru. Dubbed 'Juanita,' her frozen body - which I had the chance to see at the Museo - is remarkably well-preserved. Reinhard went on to discover Inca child mummies in various sites, including the three 'children of Llullaillaco,' excavated at the Argentina-Chile border at an astounding 6,739 meters above sea level.
The fact that the children and their entourage of priests and nobles were able to the scale such high mountains was in itself remarkable, especially considering that even today humans would struggle to reach such heights (as I myself experienced at the 5,822-meter El Misti-another capacocha site). For children who had to make do with shoes made of llama leather and alpaca wool, it must have been an arduous ascent, especially since they had to trek all the way from Cusco - a journey that could take up to several months.
Who were the children selected for the sacrifice? Apparently, they belonged to the nobility and were chosen for their beauty. I would be curious to know what aesthetic standards they held to arrive at their choices. While we have our conceptions of what a beautiful child looks like, these notions are also culturally relative: In some parts of precolonial Philippines, for instance, flat foreheads - and very long hair, both for men and women - were seen as attractive (see Scott 1995). For their part, the Incas practiced skull molding, and this was seen in some of the capacocha victims.
The children were accompanied with valuable objects - gold and silver figurines, spondylus artifacts, feather headdresses, finely woven clothes made of alpaca wool. Archeological studies also show that they had good nutrition and consumed chicha (fermented corn beverage) and coca before being dealt a mortal blow, buried alive or left to die.
In the documentary I watched at the Museo, the narrator concludes by suggesting that at least these children's death had meaning for them and their loved ones: They died with the knowledge that their death would be for the salvation of their people, and their own transformation into godlike beings.
I do not know if the children truly preferred to be in the company of gods, rather than be with their family and friends. I do not know if their parents genuinely believed that an imagined afterlife was preferable for their children. Surely, one cannot infer too much from a culture that had no written language with which to tell their tales, or from the frozen faces of children whose own narratives we will never hear.
But when I think of the children meaninglessly orphaned and killed in my country in the name of a fake drug war, I wonder which of our two cultures is more civilized.