The 500-year-old children

Frozen mummies: Science promises insight into an already amazing find in South America.

April 09, 1999

THE LATE Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" foretold astronauts able to hibernate in a frozen state. It was pure science fiction, but, it turns out, he nearly got the date right.

Last month, archaeologists unearthed three mummies preserved in incredible condition for half a millennium in an Andean volcano in Argentina. Scientists believe the mummified children were buried alive by Incan priests in a religious sacrifice, but quickly froze within Mount Llullaillaco before the corpses deteriorated.

The explorers found internal organs as intact as if the deaths had occurred only recently, expedition co-leader Johan Reinhard said. Skin still bore traces of peach-fuzz hair. Frozen blood filled the heart of one body. One skull was cone-shaped, perhaps because the Incas tightly bound their children's heads to mold them to the form of the mountains they revered.

DNA testing and CAT scans of preserved tissue and fluids will open more widely the window on this 500-year-old culture. A trove of other artifacts found will also yield insights into the Incan empire, which stretched from Colombia to Chile.

The expedition, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, was the stuff of theater itself: a team member whose heart nearly gave out at 22,000 feet; 70-mph winds at the dig site and a quest nearly abandoned before archaeologists followed "fill" dirt indicating past human activity to a carved llama figurine no larger than a key. After carving away 5 feet of rock and earth, they lowered a team member by his ankles to hoist out the amazing find.

Modern technology promises to reveal more about the people the ancient rock protected.

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