La Doncella: The Best Preserved Child Mummy in History

What you’ll find in this article

  • Finding La Doncella
  • Stories that artefacts tell
  • Virgins of the sun
  • Hair samples from La Doncella
  • Where is La Doncella exhibited?

Finding La Doncella

In 1999, an expedition crew led by Johan Reinhard was carrying out an archeological excavation near the summit of the world’s tallest active volcano, Mount Llullaillaco, in Argentina. The crew set their camp at an elevation of 6,600 meters where the temperature would go down to -40 °C.

A surprise came when a member of the group screamed, “Mummy!” And so, they discovered the “highest burial site” in the world and more importantly, the most well-preserved mummy in history.

Archeologists found 3 child mummies on the site (the other two being La niña del rayo and El niño). However, the child mummy La Doncella (translated as The Maiden) was the most notable one.

500-year-old La Doncella /

La Doncella is the mummy of a 15-year-old Incan girl. Over 500 years ago, she was offered as a sacrifice to the Incan God of Sun. Scientists determined that before La Doncella was taken high up in the Andes Mountains, she was given chicha, a corn beer that made her fall into a deep sleep.

Coca leaves were found on her lips, which was used by the Incans to decrease the effects of altitude sickness. Furthermore, coins were found in La Doncella’s palm, alluding to her status as a messenger to heaven.

The Inca Empire and the Incan culture were wiped out by the Spanish conquerors. There exist such few traces of this civilization that once dominated South America.

As a result, the well-preserved ceramics and artefacts found alongside La Doncella carry vital importance. They illuminate the past and tell us a lot about the vanished Incan culture.

The site where the mummies were found / Johan Reinhard – Wikimedia Commons

Stories That Artefacts Tell


The style of the pottery and its artistic features indicate that she came from the Incan capital, Cusco.


Her ceremonial tunic and headpiece point to her having been the daughter of a local chieftain.

Feather Head-Dress

This beautiful, feathered head-dress indicated that she was sequestered into a very special group of women, famous throughout Incan Civilization – the Virgins of the Sun.

Virgins of the Sun

Virgins of the Sun were young girls who, around the age of 10, were chosen, or in some cases endowed by their families, to become servants or sacrifices to the Incan God of Sun.

The Virgins of the Sun had minimal duties, such as preparing offerings to the God. At a certain age, most of these virgin girls would be selected as concubines to the royal Incan court. Only a few of them would be selected as human sacrifices to the Sun God.

On the contrary to how people may react to this proposition today, back then, to be chosen as a sacrifice to the Sun God was a great honor. It was documented by the Incans that the virgins who were given the privilege to be sacrificed were treated as demi-god princesses.

A depiction of La Doncella as a Virgin of the Sun /

Hair Samples from La Doncella

White Hair: Genetics or Stress?

Upon examining the body of La Doncella, scientists were struck by the fact that the young girl had strands of white hair. A highly unusual case for a 15-year old, this was thought to be on account of two possible factors: genetics or a high number of stressors in the girl’s life.

Her diet was changed to prepare her for the sacrifice

Scientists from University of Bradford, England, found out about La Doncella’s diet after examining her hair samples. A year before her death, La Doncella’s diet consisted of vegetables and potatoes, a diet typically consumed by those in the lower class. However, later on her diet had changed to maize and meat, which was considered as the food of the upper classes.

As the research suggests, this shift in her diet dates back to the start of her life as a Virgin of the Sun, during which La Doncella was being prepared for sacrifice.

Her hair was braided right before she died / – © Angelique Corthals

Where is La Doncella exhibited?

As of September 2007, La Doncella has been exhibited at the High Mountain Archeological Museum in Salta, Argentina. A special display was built for her keeping true to the conditions in which she was found.

Child mummy La Doncella in display /