Meeting a mummy

We were led into the final dark room, and I felt her presence before my eyes found her. The air in her glass chamber was chilled to -20C in order to preserve the bundle that crouched before us. Juanita, the young Incan girl who was sacrificed to appease the Gods, sat in a foetal position with her face turned upwards.

Approaching her clear coffin, you could feel the cold pressing against the glass. Staring into her face, a wash of unease settled in the crooks of my elbows and knees – it was uncomfortable studying her as it felt like she belonged to the mountain, and another time. I kept my eyes fixed on her, expecting she would move and resettle her shawl, or uncross her stiff arms that had cradled her for more than 500 years.

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Arequipa is shaken by 8-10 tremors a day, and the gaping crack in the bell tower of the white-stoned Catholic cathedral stands testament to this fact. The city is surrounded by volcanoes, including the active El Misti. In late 1995, Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing assistant Miguel Zarate made a discovery that made reverberations of its own around the world, revealing new light on the former Inca empire that had ruled there half a millennia before.

Juanita, otherwise known as ‘La Niña de los Hielo’ (‘The Girl of Ice’) was found on Mount Ampato. Her mummified body was extremely well-preserved due to the fact she had completely frozen – her skin, hair, nails and organs were all intact. Only her face showed signs of deterioration. When volcanic ash from nearby Sabancaya melted the ice she was encased in, it caused her body to slide down the mountain into a gulley where her face was temporarily exposed to the sun.

The discovery was so significant because it allowed us a rare glimpse into one of the great lost empires – the Incas. She is estimated to be one of hundreds of children sacrificed high up in the Andean peaks, with over 115 sites sacred sites excavated so far. Each site contains rich textiles, ornate wooden utensils and small statues of silver and gold. The purpose for these sacrifices, or ‘capacocha’ was to appease the gods and mountain deities, and to ensure rain and abundant crops. Some scholars also cite that the rituals were in order to protect the Incas, or provide escorts for the emperor in the afterlife. Others who are more cynical believe children were offered so that their parents could increase their links with the emperor and become more influential in society. Most sacrifices were children between the ages of 6 and 15 years old since children were regarded as ‘pure’; Juanita is estimated to have been around 14 at the time of her death.

It was considered a great privilege to be selected for sacrifice, and Incan priests would even offer their own children to the emperor. The chosen children were lavishly treated in the months leading up to their pilgrimage into the mountains, and were fed on high protein diets consisting of maize. Beforehand, a feast was thrown in Cuzco by the emperor, where the children and their families would be honoured. Their hair was braided and they wore the finest clothes, made from rich vicuña wool (known as the fibre of the Gods), and jewellery made from precious metals, beads and feathers.

The journey to the icy summits was led by priests, and it was arduous with a great risk of dying from exposure given the low temperatures and high altitudes of over 20,000ft. If they reached the top, which was considered to be closest to the Gods, the children were given an intoxicating drink containing coca. Once the effects of the drink had dulled their senses, they were killed with either a blunt blow to the head or strangulation. The child sacrifices were then buried with statues of llamas and other precious items. Priests would revisit the sacred site, or ‘huaca,’ with coca leaves and food as offerings to the gods.

I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be chosen and revered by the emperor, enjoying celebrations in your honour, but still knowing that you would have to die once the pilgrimage was over. Despite this practice, the Incas were believed to exhibit more ‘humane’ sacrifices than the Aztecs and other pre-Colombian cultures.

Last year, 227 skeletons of children aged from just four to fourteen were uncovered in northern Peru in the Huanchaco site. These sacrifices were uncovered from the period prior to the Incas, the Chimú culture. It is thought that the sheer volume of sacrifices was a desperate attempt to appease the gods from the devastating floods and rainfall that the coast had experienced. Now, thankfully, we know that the change in weather patterns is down to the El Niño phenomenon, and not the wrath of the gods.

Sources

‘Peru: Skeletons of 227 victims unearthed at world’s largest child sacrifice site,’ by Sam Jones, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/29/peru-huanchaco-sacrificial-site-skeletons

‘Ice Mummies of the Inca,’ by Liesl Clark, NOVA Beta, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/ice-mummies-inca.html

‘The secrets of Incan sacrifice,’ http://mathwiz2001.tripod.com/theicemaiden/id9.html

‘The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes,’ by Johan Reinhard, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0792268385?tag=mummytombs&link_code=as3&creativeASIN=0792268385&creative=373489&camp=211189

Title picture: ‘Mummy Juanita: The Sacrifice of the Inca Ice Maiden,’ by Dhwty, Ancient Origins: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/mummy-juanita-sacrifice-inca-ice-maiden-009800

Article picture: ‘Meeting a 500-Year-Old Peruvian Mummy,’ by Margie Goldsmith, HuffPost: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/visiting-a-500yearold-per_b_1146363

Birds of paradise in Singapore

Like the Victorian naturalists and explorers before us, we were searching for the pinnacle of feathered beauty. The most impressive specimen of the local birds of paradise – the greater racket-tailed drongo.

These are the rare creatures which attracted the Victorian ecologist Alfred R. Wallace, who was studying the variations between bird species, from plumage to beak shape. It was his curiosity and passion for finding birds of paradise, or what he called “the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth,” that made him one of the most prolific and celebrated minds of his era.

The beauty of exotic birds was highly desirable and fetched an even higher price, so many explorers, Wallace included, attempted to capture specimens to send back to menagerie displays and collectors back home. This additional venture enabled travellers the funds to be able to continue their work.

Wallace was a successful field biologist, spending twelve years in jungles in the Amazon and then island hopping around the Malay archipelago. His interest was mainly in birds, and his observation that individual islands had their own unique species led him to the theory of evolution, around the same time as his contemporary Charles Darwin. You can read more about his life and accomplishments below*, but for now, let’s retrace Wallace’s footsteps into the jungle 150 years later.

We stepped into the treeline and out of the sudden downpour. A shower of heat dripped down our arms as condensation. The cicadas filled our heads like tinnitus, and the flashes of sunlight through the leaves distracted our eyes from the fast flittering movements of the butterflies. Dead leaves larger than our heads were caught in rigor mortis on the large vines that swept down from the canopy in dizzying spirals.

Yet there was so much life. The prehistoric-looking common mynah birds hopped before us, their movements reminiscent of two-legged raptors. Rustles in the leaves twenty feet above announced the arrival of a troupe of long-tailed macaques, lured close by a fellow walker rustling in their bag. Their smiles and keen eyes were not to be mistaken for friendly, and mothers with bald babies clinging to their bellies clambered down towards us. Many others watched from the branches, before leaping across the path above us to continue their hunt for food.

Following the boardwalk by the water, giant ripples from bobbing catfish the length of my arm disturbed the surface. A flicker of a tongue revealed the otherwise statuesque 5ft monitor lizard, who on being discovered, plodded away on his sharp claws in search for another sunny patch to recharge.

Yet we still had not found our prize: the coveted greater racket-tailed drongo birds. The call of a drongo is difficult to recognise since it is a master of mimicry, copying not only other birds but other animals too. One theory behind this feature is that it enables these particular drongo birds to distract smaller birds and steal their hoard of insects – they are the pirates of the high trees.

The most distinctive mark of the bird is its unique elongated tail feathers, which are shaped as delicate bows, or twirled rackets, only at the end. It hangs down from the bird at an impressive length, and seems to pose a hazard as the bird flits between dense branches. Perhaps for this reason, it mainly occupies the higher echelons of the jungle.

“[Drongo birds] have long forked tails, and some Asian species have elaborate tail decorations. Racket-tailed drongos are the mimicry artists among birds. They can mimic the sound of other birds and some animals.”

Looking directly up at the silhouetted branches, we strained our eyes to see what was calling in a nasal whistling sound. The speckled leaves exposed pinpricks of light, having been ravished by hungry insects. It was then I saw it.

A medium-sized bird, unremarkable in colour with its black/blue feathers that reminded me of blackbirds in my native England, but with a show-stopping finalé. The long tail swept behind it before settling down gracefully below its owner. The tufts of its crown moved as the bird surveyed its surroundings.

These drongos are well-known for their bravery on taking on larger birds in competition for food, and it was likely searching for an easy meal. It was a magnificent sight, and the experience only lasted half a minute. Yet the appeal of seeing these birds has lasted centuries.

* Alfred R. Wallace was a self-taught naturalist, who spent eight years hopping around the islands of the Malay archipelago to study and collect a range of specimens. As New Scientist writes, ‘Most famously, when [Wallace] crossed the narrow but deep channel between the islands of Bali and Lombok, he discovered strikingly different sorts of birds and other animals. He realised he had crossed a boundary between two major zoological realms; on one side, the animals were typical of Asia, on the other of Australasia. The boundary is known as Wallace’s Line.’

Back in England, in haste to publish these significant findings to the scientific community, it was agreed that Darwin and Wallace would publish their theory of evolution in a joint paper in August 1858. At the time, Wallace was still out in the field, suffering with fever in New Guinea and did little to celebrate his success. On his return to England, however, Wallace was awarded with the Order of Merit, the highest honour bestowed by any monarch. His travel memoirs, The Malay Archipelago was published in 1869 and has never been out of print.

Although Wallace published subsequent books on his theory, it was Darwin’s book in 1859, On the Origin of Species, that ignited the imagination of the public. The evolution argument fell out of favour towards the end of the 19th Century, and on its revival in the 1930s, it was Darwin who received the sole credit.

However, on the centenary celebrations of Wallace in 2013, a portrait was hung in the Natural History Museum in London to commemorate his achievements, albeit dwarfed by the impressive marble statue of Darwin seated on the stairs. Finally, in 2015, the first full bust of Wallace was presented to the Linnean Society, where his joint paper on evolution was first read in 1858.

Notes

‘Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero’, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0160nxk

‘Tricksters’, BBC Wildlife, http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Drongo

Greater racket-tailed drongo bird, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_racket-tailed_drongo

‘Why does Charles Darwin Eclipse Alfred R. Wallace?’ by Kevin Lenoard, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-21549079

‘Alfred R Wallace: A Very Rare Specimen’, by Stephanie Pain, New Scientist, https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029421-100-alfred-russel-wallace-a-very-rare-specimen/amp/?client=safari