El Niño del Cerro El Plomo: A Bridge to Chile's Incan Roots

Santiago is full of buildings and landmarks whose historical significance can easily be overlooked; jostling towards the metro entrance at Plaza de Armas, one forgets that the plaza was once a point on the Qhapac Ñan—the historic Incan trail that covered more than 40.000 km. However, as an important Incan stronghold before the Spanish colonization of Chile, Santiago's Incan roots can be felt in innumerable subtle ways.

Inti Raymi Ceremony 2015. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural
Inti Raymi Ceremony 2015. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural

A great way to connect closely with the Incan presence in Santiago is with a trip to the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (Museum of Natural History), one of the continent's first museums, which is tucked away in a beautiful building in Parque Quinta Normal. Housed here is El Niño del Cerro el Plomo, or the Boy of Cerro El Plomo, the preserved body of an Incan boy who was offered as a sacrifice more than 400 years ago atop of Cerro El Plomo just outside of Santiago. According to Cristian Becker, Chief Curator & Scientific Curator at the museum, El Niño is unique, as his body has been preserved without prior human intervention.

"When you see him, he looks as if he fell asleep yesterday."

El Niño del Cerro El Plomo. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural
El Niño del Cerro El Plomo. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural

He explained that what most visitors see in the museum's "Chile Biogeográfico" permanent exhibition is actually a replica of El Niño, while his actual body rests in a specially created chamber that maintains it at 2-4°C in order to preserve its near-perfect condition.

El Niño was discovered in 1954 by a group of explorers on the icy heights of Cerro El Plomo while searching for silver deposits. He was offered as part of the Incan Capacocha ceremony, an important Incan ceremony that took place during harvests, as well as during times of hardship. According to Becker, the ceremony and the sacrifice were carried out with participation from the entire community, and with the utmost planning. He explained that for the ceremony children were selected from all over the vast Incan territory—this child appeared to have originated from a jungle area in Bolivia. While El Niño travelled to visit the Incan capital of Cuzco, the community in the Mapocho valley was busy preparing the structures in which he would be buried.

At the time of the ceremony, he was carried up El Plomo, fed chicha and other narcotics to make him sleep, and left inside the sealed structure, located at 5.400m. Becker explains that the offerings were made at the tops of the Cerros as an offering to the sun god, and also as a way to protect the communities over which the peaks tower—a pattern that was repeated throughout the Incan empire. Since the discovery of El Niño del Cerro El Plomo, other child sacrifices have been found in Argentina and Peru in similar states of conservation.

"These types of sacrifices have been found in the all of the highest mountains—Aconcagua, Llullaillaco, Cerro El Plomo and more—because it is the highest point, it is watching over the valley."

The Burial Site of El Niño del Cerro El Plomo. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural
The Burial Site of El Niño del Cerro El Plomo. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural

When he was found, the boy revolutionized the way that historians and scientists thought of the Incan Empire. As the first of several offerings found, his discovery validated and gave real-life proof to texts written by both Spanish and indigenous documentarians, who described the meaning and procedures of the Capacocha ceremony. But the level of detail that the boy offers goes beyond anything recovered from historical texts—from the details of his clothes to the hundreds of tiny braids in which his hair remains decorated—El Niño provides an astounding level of detail that historians couldn't have imagined before his discovery.

"To see El Niño is to see a young boy...he's a person who lived 500 years ago. But he is also a window to the past—in historical and biological terms," says Becker. He explained that while the museum's highest priority is the conservation of El Niño's body, technological advances over the last 15 years mean that scientists have been able to unlock many new clues about how El Niño lived, without harming his body. It is only since 2000, for example, that scientists have been able to know what kind of food he was fed before his death. In addition, by analyzing samples taken from El Niño's body, scientists were able to corroborate that he had been especially selected and had travelled to the Mapocho valley specifically for this ceremony—further proof of the ceremony's importance.

Inti Raymi Ceremony 2015. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural
Inti Raymi Ceremony 2015. Photos Courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural

Besides his scientific and historic significance, El Niño continues to have a significant cultural impact more than 500 years after his death. Since 2009, Centro Indígeno Conacin, an association of various indigenous groups, has visited the museum each year for the Inti Raymi Ceremony—the winter solstice—to pay tribute to El Niño, carrying gifts and food that they leave as offerings to the boy and carrying out different ceremonies in front of the museum. The museum then allows these devotees to visit the boy, in order to pay respect and present him with gifts.

"We keep the gifts after the ceremony—textiles, wood, fruit, chocolates—they are all part of a living cultural process that is happening, that will be part of El Niño's legacy in 30 or 40 years," declared Becker.

"In this way, the boy continues to be part of the community, 500 years after his death."

For more information about El Niño del Cerro Plomo, visit the Museum of Natural History's digital collection.

Museo Nacional de Historia Natural
Santiago Centro
Parque Quinta Normal
22 2680 4603
Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sundays and Holidays 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Metro Quinta Normal
www.mnhn.cl

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