Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes

By Johan Reinhard

National Geographic. 384 pp. $26

On a chilly evening last July, I was sitting comfortably, drink in hand, on the patio of my modest cottage in the Sangre de Cristo foothills outside Santa Fe, gazing beyond the darkening silhouettes of cactus and scrub grass. It was so still I could hear myself breathing. As the sun descended behind the jagged profile of the Jemez Mountains, I thought about my trip to Cholula, Mexico, 10 years before. Reaching the top of the Tepanapa Pyramid, I had let an entire hazy afternoon dwindle away watching smoky, snowcapped Popocatepetl and its quieter companion, Ixtacihuatl, impassively stand guard over the Basin of Mexico. What is it about the personalities of mountains, I wondered, that compels attention? It is not mass alone. Unlike staring from a beach out to the vastness of the sea, measuring time by the seductive beat of the waves, looking at mountains somehow stirs us to action, as if the peaks were asking whether we have the nerve to approach them.

Johan Reinhard, a high-altitude archaeologist and "explorer-in-residence" for National Geographic, has spent his entire professional life accepting the challenge of mountains. By his own admission, there was a stretch when he was on a mountaintop for all but three months in 17 years. He has made more than a hundred ascents topping 17,000 feet -- the threshold of what many scientists call "the death zone" -- and has discovered more than 40 high-altitude ritual sites. "The Ice Maiden" is the compelling and often astonishing first-person account of his excavation of three of these sites in the forbidding Andes ranges of Peru.

It is incredible enough that five centuries ago, the Inca peoples built a complex system of roads and way stations throughout their 2,500-mile-long empire, which ran from northern Ecuador to central Chile; that they traveled in ritual processions scores of miles through arid desert then ascended the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere, bearing special provisions and plumed and golden statues; that they reached the cloud-shrouded peaks and erected temple enclosures with the stone and timber they had carried on their backs; that they quickly sacrificed children barely out of their teens; and that priests then buried the boys and girls, willingly given up by their parents for a higher purpose, deep under the snow and ice. Wrapped in brightly colored ceremonial robes and crowned with macaw feathers, bound hand and foot in a crouched or fetal position, mouths stuffed with coca leaves yet often still breathing, the young ones were offered in tribute to Pachamama (Mother Earth) so that she would send water for the cultivation of crops and livestock.

Even more incredible is the fact that Reinhard and his motley entourage -- obsessive scientists jealous of their turf, photographers angling for the best shots of freshly opened graves, burros carrying gasoline generators to power the blowtorches needed to melt rock-hard ice, and native Indian guides fearful of fickle mountain gods -- were able to make any headway at all in their missions to retrace the Incas' steps and recover those ancient mummies.

Reinhard tells of bureaucratic roadblocks, broken-down buses and bands of looters pillaging burial sites. He describes huddling in a tent in the middle of a blinding blizzard with no provisions left but hot dogs and sulfurous water; impromptu raids on his base camps by military police; and accusations that he is removing artifacts of national cultural patrimony. These hardships were often even more logistically complex than the unusual scientific hurdles involved in examining a mummy without disturbing the delicate ecology of centuries-old blood, brain matter and muscle tissue.

Indeed, dramatically unlike Egyptian mummies (which were disemboweled, desiccated and embalmed), the Inca ice maiden that Reinhard discovered in September 1995 at Mount Ampato, in the Andes south of Lima, was naturally preserved, "flash-frozen" in the mountain terrain together with her companions. "A hush fell over the room as her head cloth was removed and we saw her face for the first time," Reinhard writes, as la doncella (the maiden) is unwrapped for an exploratory CT scan and a DNA biopsy in the temperature- and humidity-controlled lab at Catholic University in Arequipa, Peru. "Her hair was stylishly braided, and she appeared to be asleep. A reddish pigment had been applied on her cheeks, and the thought crossed my mind that she was blushing. . . . We instinctively talked in low voices, as if we might wake her."

Off on yet another journey, the archaeologist and his colleagues recline in sleeping bags inside the dried-out crater of the volcano El Misti, the Mount Fuji of southern Peru. It is deep night, and the stars are out in pinpoint clarity. Gazing heavenward, Reinhard recalls a friend, Gary Urton, once telling him about a group of stars the Incas had named "the Serpent that is changing into the Condor."

"Were you taught anything about the constellations when you were growing up?" Reinhard asks his Indian guide, Arcadio.

"The Incas were very wise," Arcadio says simply. "For them everything in nature fit together, everything was in harmony."

"The Ice Maiden" is especially to be appreciated in the context of contemporary popular descriptions of indigenous peoples and their myths and archetypes because it portrays a culture very different from ours with excitement and energy while still maintaining this kind of balanced, informed respect.