Dr Emma Brown, from the department of archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford, said: "The Spanish chroniclers suggest that children were sacrificed for all kinds of reasons: important life milestones in the lives of the Incas, in times of war or natural disasters, but there was a calendar of rituals too."
The mummified remains were discovered in 1999, entombed in a shrine near the summit of the 6,739m-high Llullaillaco volcano in Argentina. Three children were buried in the mountain is over 6,000m above sea level: a 13-year-old girl, and a younger boy and girl, thought to be about four or five years old.
Their remains date to about 500 years ago, during the time of the Inca Empire, which dominated South America until the Europeans arrived at the end of the 15th Century.
The international team of researchers used forensic tests to analyze the chemicals found in the children's hair. They discovered that all three had consumed alcohol and coca leaves in the final months of their lives. Historical records reveal that these substances were reserved for the elite and often used in Incan rituals.
Tests on the girl's long braids revealed that her coca consumption increased sharply a year before her death. The scientists believe this corresponds to the time she was selected for sacrifice. Earlier research also reveals that her diet changed at this point too, from a potato-based peasant diet to one rich in meat and maize. The girl, known as the Llullaillaco maiden, was probably considered more highly valued than the younger children, because of her virginal status. The results also revealed that the girl ingested large amounts of alcohol in the last few weeks of her life.
It suggests she was heavily sedated before she and the other children were taken to the volcano, placed in their tombs and left to die. Dr. Brown said, "With the combination of being placed in the grave with the alcohol and the cold... she would have passed away quietly. There is no sign of violence. She is incredibly well looked after: she has a good layer of fat, she has beautifully groomed hair, beautiful clothes."
The mummies are now housed in the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, Argentina.
At least the children didn't suffer undue cruelty, torture or rape. No matter what I think about other cultures and the practices of former civilizations, at least the findings set my mind at ease.