Feb. 04, 2011

Constanza Ceruti, High Altitude Archaeologist

by Milbry Polk

Constanza Ceruti is an Argentinean archaeologist who studies ceremonial sites associated with mountains around the world.

I have climbed over 100 mountains -- many of them solo -- to survey the peaks. I have found that nearly every mountain has meaning given to it by the local people. In collaboration with other archaeologists, I discovered several mummies of children who were offered as a sacrifice to the mountain deities in Argentina during the time of the Incan Empire.

Ever since she was a child growing up in Buenos Aires, Constanza knew that mountains were going to be part of her life.

When I was about 14 I climbed a hill and was entranced with seeing the horizons. Something special happened to me at that moment and I dreamed of going to the mountains. But it wasn’t until about 8 years later that I made my first climb. I went straight from hiking in Patagonia to climbing in the High Andes. I felt completely whole and fulfilled and at peace in the mountains.

Since that first climb I have had the opportunity to climb in many other places around the world from the Canadian Rockies, to Sinai, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Norway and throughout the Andes in Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

Constanza studied anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires and received her PhD in history with a specialization in high altitude archaeology from the University of Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina. Her expertise is the ceremonies that the Inca people carried out in association with mountain peaks. To date about 25 mummies have been found in the modern countries that make up what was the Incan Empire. Constanza was part of a team that discovered mummies of three children on Mount Llullaillaco in Argentina. At 22,109 feet the team excavated the highest archaeological site in the world. The three mummies and their offerings are now in a museum in Salta, Argentina.

Constanza explained the significance of the mummies:

These were children from higher social status. They were selected from different localities of the Empire because of their physical beauty and intelligence. They were taken to the Incan capitol, Cuzco, and groomed for a year to be special ambassadors to the gods then taken up to the mountain to be sacrificed. Two of the mummies were girls.

Constanza said that the sacrifices probably happened in times of stress or changes in the life of the Inca (the ruler) or political transitions, all of which would have required some intersession with the Gods. One was a girl who was 15 known as “The Maiden.” The other two are a boy who was seven and a girl who was about 6.

We studied them for over six years at the Catholic University of Salta.

Constanza learned many things about the children during the study. For example, the hair analysis showed that during the last year of their lives the children had an enriched diet based on corn.

Through the CT scans we found the organs were in an extraordinary state of preservation making them the best-preserved mummies in the world.

Analyzing the clothes and ornamentation was part of the study. The children were wearing moccasins and carrying spare sandals.

The Maiden wore typical Inca clothing including a sleeveless dress and a woolen shawl. She carried a feather headdress showing she was a chosen woman of the Incas destined to be a “virgin of the sun.” She was wearing ornaments on her shoulder. The boy was wearing a typical male poncho. He had feathers on his forehead and a bracelet. The younger girl was hit by lightening after she was buried because she had a metal plaque on her forehead that attracted the lightening. In spite of that, the organs in her body are still in a great state.

Interestingly, different ethnic origins can be inferred from the shape of the heads, which some groups intentionally modeled during infancy.

The younger girl has a conical shaped head modified to resemble a mountain. We suspect they all died from exposure to the cold. We know from analysis they were given coca leaves during the last year of their lives and probably on the trek. Coca leaves played a prominent role in Andean/Inca rituals.

Constanza has a new book coming out entitled Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains co- written with Johan Reinhart.

I hope this book raises awareness of how fragile the cultural heritage of the mountains is and that they will be protected. As I have learned more and more about the Inca, I am impressed with their wisdom regarding the natural landscape and the earth we live on.

To really understand the beliefs ancient people had about the mountains, Constanza has been spending a lot of time with the descendants of the Inca.

The happiest years of my life were when I lived in a tiny village in the Argentinian Andes. It was wonderful because the people were so welcoming. The pacing of life was more natural. I found that almost every aspect of their lives had a sacred dimension. That experience helped me to understand more about the archaeology. The wisdom of the past lives on in the traditions of the isolated mountain people today.

Constanza went on several mountain pilgrimages in Argentina and Peru that have ancient roots with a Catholic overlay. The Virgin Mary is usually associated with the mother earth, Pachamama and Saint Santiago is associated with the ancient Illapa, the deity of thunder and lightening.

Andean people and their current rituals and offerings to mother earth have a lot in common with the ancient rituals. For example, people today make tiny miniatures of the things they want from the Mountain Gods or Saints. The tiny llama figurines, sandals and food items mirror ritual items used by the Incan peoples in their ceremonies; whereas miniature cars, money, wedding rings reveal ‘westernized’ needs. What they do with the items is take them to the mountain where they are displayed. In some places they are placed on the snow where the people believe the objects absorb power, making them more likely to manifest in reality. In one festivity in Peru, for example, the people go to glaciers and take some of the ice back to their towns. They also collect herbs from high up to use in medicine. Medicine from the mountains is believed to be much more potent.

What I have learned from the Andean people is the enormous respect they have towards the mountains, a respect that is tinged with fear, reverence, and affection. They see the mountains as being alive. We have a lot to learn from mountain people regarding having a deeper connection with the natural world and the care that is needed.

Constanza is currently working on a worldwide survey of indigenous peoples relationship to mountains.

I feel wonderful when I am in the Mountains.

Milbry Polk is the Founder and Director Emeritus of Wings WorldQuest, the preeminent organization supporting women explorers throughout the world. She is the author/editor of a dozen books including Women of Discovery, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and Egyptian Mummies; and she is the book reviews editor for The Explorers Journal.

About Milbry Polk

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