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Capacocha Ceremony

Inca Child Sacrifices

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Figurine from Llullailaco Burial

Figurine from Llullailaco Burial, on display at the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña

Randall Sheppard

The capacocha ceremony, involving a ritual sacrifice of children, was an important part of the Inca Empire, and it is interpreted today as one of several strategies used by the imperial state to integrate and control its vast empire. According to historical documentation, the capacocha ceremony was performed in celebration of key events such as the death of an emperor, the birth of a royal son, a great victory in battle or an annual or biennial event in the Incan calendar. It was also conducted to stop or prevent droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and epidemics.

Ceremony Rituals

Historic records reporting on the Inca capacocha ceremony include that of Bernabe Cobo's Historia del Nuevo Mundo. Cobo was a Spanish friar and conquistador known today for his chronicles of Inca myths, religious beliefs and ceremonies. Other chroniclers reporting the capacocha ceremony included Juan de Betanzos, Alonso Ramos Gavilán, Muñoz Molina, Rodrigo Hernández de Principe, and Sarmiento de Gamboa: it is best to remember that all of these were members of the Spanish colonization force, and thus had an imperative political agenda to set up the Inca as deserving conquest. There is no doubt, however, that capacocha was a ceremony practiced by the Inca.

When a capacocha ceremony was to be held, reported Cobo, the Inca sent a demand out to the provinces for tribute payment of gold, silver, spondylus shell, cloth, feathers, and llamas and alpacas. But more to the point, the Inca rulers also demanded tribute payment of boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 16, selected, so the histories report, for physical perfection.

According to Cobo, the children were brought from their provincial homes to the Inca capital city of Cuzco, where feasting and ritual events occurred, and then they were taken to the place of sacrifice, sometimes thousands of kilometers (and many months of travel) away. Offerings and additional rituals would be made at the appropriate huaca (shrine). Then, the children were suffocated, killed with a blow to the head or buried alive after ritual inebriation.

One capacocha ceremony known from the historic period is Tanta Carhua, a 10 year old girl who was sacrificed to obtain the capac's support for a canal project.

Archaeological Evidence

Pottery from several of the capacocha shrines identified in Argentina, Peru and Ecuador include both local and Cuzco-based examples (Bray et al.). Artifacts buried with the children were made both within the local community and in the Inca center.

Most, but not all, capacocha sacrifices culminated in high altitude burials. All of them date to the Late Horizon (Inca Empire) period. Strontium isotope analysis of the seven individuals at the Choquepukio child burials in Peru indicate that the children came from several different geographical areas, including five local, one from the Wari region, and one from the Tiwanaku region.

Capacocha Sites

Approximately 20 child burials associated with Inca artifacts or otherwise dated to the Late Horizon (Inca) period have been identified archaeologically to date, within the Andean mountains and elsewhere throughout the farflung Inca empire.

  • Argentina: Llullailaco (6739 meters above sea level (masl), Quehuar (6100 masl), Chañi (5896 amsl), Aconcagua, Chuscha (5175 asml)
  • Chile: El Plomo, Esmeralda
  • Ecuador: La Plata Island (non-summit)
  • Peru: Ampato "Juanita" (6312 amsl), Choquepukio (Cuzco valley), Sara Sara (5500 asml)

Sources

NOVA has a discussion of the historically documented Tanta Carhua capacocha sacrifice in its feature Ice Mummies of the Incas.

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Inca Empire, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Andrushko VA, Buzon MR, Gibaja AM, McEwan GF, Simonetti A, and Creaser RA. 2011. Investigating a child sacrifice event from the Inca heartland. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(2):323-333.

Bray TL, Minc LD, Ceruti MC, Chávez JA, Perea R, and Reinhard J. 2005. A compositional analysis of pottery vessels associated with the Inca ritual of capacocha. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(1):82-100.

Browning GR, Bernaski M, Arias G, and Mercado L. 2012. 1. How the natural world helps to understand the past: The Llullaillaco Children’s experience. Cryobiology 65(3):339.

Fernández J, Panarello HO, and Schobinger J. 1999. 3.0.co;2-d" TARGET="">The Inka mummy from Mount Aconcagua: Decoding the geographic origin of the “Messenger to the Deities” by means of stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis. Geoarchaeology 14(1):27-46.

Previgliano CH, Ceruti C, Reinhard J, Arias Araoz F, and Gonzalez Diez J. 2003. Radiologic Evaluation of the Llullaillaco Mummies. American Journal of Roentgenology 181:1473-1479.

Wilson AS, Taylor T, Ceruti MC, Chavez JA, Reinhard J, Grimes V, Meier-Augenstein W, Cartmell L, Stern B, Richards MP et al. 2007. Stable isotope and DNA evidence for ritual sequences in Inca child sacrifice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(42):16456-16461.

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