Capacocha Ceremony: The Evidence for Inca Child Sacrifices

High Altitude Sacrifice of Children in the Inca Capacocha Ceremony

Elaborate Feather Headdress worn by Llullaillaco Maiden
This elaborate feather headdress was worn by the Llullaillaco Maiden, who died in a capacocha ceremony some 500 years ago. Randall Sheppard

The capacocha ceremony (or capac hucha), involving a ritual sacrifice of children, was an important part of the Inca Empire, and it is interpreted today as one of the several strategies used by the imperial Inca state to integrate and control its vast empire. According to historical documentation, the capacocha ceremony was performed in celebration of key events such as the death of an emperor, the birth of a royal son, a great victory in battle or an annual or biennial event in the Incan calendar. It was also conducted to stop or prevent droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and epidemics.

Ceremony Rituals

Historic records reporting on the Inca capacocha ceremony include that of Bernabe Cobo's Historia del Nuevo Mundo. Cobo was a Spanish friar and conquistador known today for his chronicles of Inca myths, religious beliefs, and ceremonies. Other chroniclers reporting the capacocha ceremony included Juan de Betanzos, Alonso Ramos Gavilán, Muñoz Molina, Rodrigo Hernández de Principe, and Sarmiento de Gamboa: it is best to remember that all of these were members of the Spanish colonization force, and thus had an imperative political agenda to set up the Inca as deserving conquest. There is no doubt, however, that capacocha was a ceremony practiced by the Inca, and archaeological evidence resoundingly supports many of the ceremony's aspects as reported in the historical record.

When a capacocha ceremony was to be held, reported Cobo, the Inca sent a demand out to the provinces for tribute payment of gold, silver, spondylus shell, cloth, feathers, and llamas and alpacas. But more to the point, the Inca rulers also demanded tribute payment of boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 16, selected, so the histories report, for physical perfection.

Children as Tribute

According to Cobo, the children were brought from their provincial homes to the Inca capital city of Cuzco, where feasting and ritual events occurred, and then they were taken to the place of sacrifice, sometimes thousands of kilometers (and many months of travel) away. Offerings and additional rituals would be made at the appropriate huaca (shrine). Then, the children were suffocated, killed with a blow to the head or buried alive after ritual inebriation.

Archaeological evidence supports Cobo's description, that the sacrifices were children raised in the regions, brought to Cuzco for their last year, and taken journeys of several months and thousands of kilometers near their homes or at other regional locations far from the capital city.

Archaeological Evidence

Most, but not all, capacocha sacrifices culminated in high altitude burials. All of them date to the Late Horizon (Inca Empire) period. Strontium isotope analysis of the seven individuals at the Choquepukio child burials in Peru indicate that the children came from several different geographical areas, including five local, one from the Wari region, and one from the Tiwanaku region. The three children buried on the Llullaillaco volcano came from two and perhaps three different locations.

Pottery from several of the capacocha shrines identified in Argentina, Peru and Ecuador include both local and Cuzco-based examples (Bray et al.). Artifacts buried with the children were made both within the local community and in the Inca capital city.

Capacocha Sites

Approximately 35 child burials associated with Inca artifacts or otherwise dated to the Late Horizon (Inca) period have been identified archaeologically to date, within the Andean mountains throughout the far-flung Inca empire. One capacocha ceremony known from the historic period is Tanta Carhua, a 10-year-old girl who was sacrificed to obtain the capac's support for a canal project.

  • Argentina: Llullailaco (6739 meters above sea level (masl), Quehuar (6100 masl), Chañi (5896 amsl), Aconcagua, Chuscha (5175 asml)
  • Chile: El Plomo, Esmeralda
  • Ecuador: La Plata Island (non-summit)
  • Peru: Ampato "Juanita" (6312 amsl), Choquepukio (Cuzco valley), Sara Sara (5500 asml)


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Bray TL, Minc LD, Ceruti MC, Chávez JA, Perea R, and Reinhard J. 2005. A compositional analysis of pottery vessels associated with the Inca ritual of capacocha. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(1):82-100.

Browning GR, Bernaski M, Arias G, and Mercado L. 2012. 1. How the natural world helps to understand the past: The Llullaillaco Children’s experience. Cryobiology 65(3):339.

Ceruti MC. 2003. Elegidos de los dioses: identidad y estatus en las víctimas sacrificiales del volcán Llullaillaco. Boletin de Arqueoligía PUCP 7.

Ceruti C. 2004. Human bodies as objects of dedication at Inca mountain shrines (north-western Argentina). World Archaeology 36(1):103-122.

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Wilson AS, Taylor T, Ceruti MC, Chavez JA, Reinhard J, Grimes V, Meier-Augenstein W, Cartmell L, Stern B, Richards MP et al. 2007. Stable isotope and DNA evidence for ritual sequences in Inca child sacrifice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(42):16456-16461.

Wilson AS, Brown EL, Villa C, Lynnerup N, Healey A, Ceruti MC, Reinhard J, Previgliano CH, Araoz FA, Gonzalez Diez J et al. 2013. Archaeological, radiological, and biological evidence offer insight into Inca child sacrifice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(33):13322-13327. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305117110

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Capacocha Ceremony: The Evidence for Inca Child Sacrifices." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Capacocha Ceremony: The Evidence for Inca Child Sacrifices. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Capacocha Ceremony: The Evidence for Inca Child Sacrifices." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).