Discovering a Scientific Treasure – The Child of Aconcagua

   

“DNA analysis has revealed a very ancient genetic lineage, about 14,000 years old, unknown to date,” says Salas

The boy from Aconcagua, about seven years old, died about 500 years ago, during the Inca Empire. After being chosen among the healthiest and most beautiful, he traveled escorted by a group of priests to an apu, a sacred hill, where he was sacrificed according to the capacocha ritual. With this periodic ceremony, the aim was to maintain the cosmic balance and ward off all kinds of catastrophes. The child’s mummy was found in 1985, frozen for centuries next to Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in America, located in the province of Mendoza, in western Argentina.

The life of this anonymous child was short-lived. His death may not have had the desired effect, since the Inca Empire vanished soon after, but his body, in an optimal state of preservation, has become a treasure for science. “The analysis of a sample of internal tissue has revealed a very old genetic lineage, about 14,000 years old, unknown to date,” explains Antonio Salas, from the University of Santiago de Compostela, to National Geographic History. Salas is part of a multidisciplinary team that is sequencing the complete genome of the mummy. The first results have been published in Scientific Reports, from the Nature Publishing Group.

The mummified body was found at more than 5000 meters high

The team begins to prepare the mummified body for transport.

The team begins to prepare the mummified body for transport.

AN INDIGENOUS WITHOUT MESTIZATION

The weight of the mummy in May 1986 was 11 kilos with 200 grams, just over a third of the estimated original weight, the product of partial desiccation

The child and the funerary bundle had all the characteristics of the capacocha ritual. The body did not present necrotic areas [death of cells or tissues], indicating that the child was taken alive to that place. It could also have been drugged or intoxicated and may that they then hit him with a blow that compressed his vertebrae and caused his death,” observes Salas. This is the first evidence detected by the researchers. The surprise came when extracting DNA from a piece of lung tissue. “Its genetic lineage or haplogroup, if it were not extinct, would be very rare today. And if it did exist, we would have to look for it in Peru or in populations closely connected with Peruvian variability,” he adds. This lineage was able to enter America during the last ice age, through the Bering Strait. “The trip to South America and its subsequent settlement must have occurred in a record time of less than 1,000 years,” says Salas. And how did he disappear without a trace? Probably after the arrival of the Europeans.

“Some affirm that the indigenous populations, and in particular the Incas, drastically decreased due to the great epidemics brought by the Europeans: smallpox, diphtheria, flu, measles… On the other hand, the modern indigenous populations are already mixed in a very complex and that is why accessing the DNA of a non-mestizo indigenous person is like opening a window to the past,” says Salas. After sequencing the mitochondrial genome, the researchers seek to obtain the complete genome of the mummy, which could shed light on infectious and chronic diseases, in addition to knowing the inpidual’s microbiome, that is, its microbiological ecosystem.

The mummified body of the child is in a cold chamber and is not exposed to the public

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