Ancient Inca Child Sacrifices on Mountaintops

by Antonio Kuilan

The practices of child sacrifices were common among the ancient Inca Empire. The  Incans performed a sacrificial ceremony in affairs such as a victorious battle, an epidemic, famine, birth of a royal son, the death of an emperor, or an annual event in the Incan calendar. These sacrifices were also performed in response to geological catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and droughts. In these ceremonial events, known as the capacocha, a child was sacrificed to please the gods – the ultimate sacrifice they could make.

A mummified Incan female sacrificed to the gods.
A mummified Incan female sacrificed to the gods.

The capacocha was a critical part of the Inca life and included rituals and feasts, lasting a period of days. Afterwards, the Inca priests embarked on a pilgrimage to the mountaintops to perform the sacrifice.

This paper will briefly examine the capacocha process and why the child sacrifices were carried out on top of the Andean peaks.


Inti - The Sun God
Inti – The Sun God

Capacocha has been translated as “solemn sacrifice” or “royal obligation,” and it is a sacrificial ceremony that is carried out to appease Inti, the Sun God, along with other deities. Though the Incan supreme god was the ‘creator god’ Viracocha, the Incas praised the Sun God who they believed nourished the land with its rays and from whom the royal family was thought to be descended from. The Incas were polytheists, believing in a number of other ‘nature gods’ that were crucial to the successes of their agriculture, such as the apus, or ‘mountain gods’.

Surviving Spanish chronicles tell us that sacrifices were common in all significant events of the emperor’s life: taking the throne, births of sons, death, and so forth. The capacocha was thought to prevent and overcome illnesses, ensure successful warfare, and provide healthy harvests. Capacocha were also performed when geological processes struck; an earthquake for example, would be a sign that the gods were angry. In short, it was thought that the appeasement of the gods could be attained by honoring them through a capacocha.

When the capacocha was performed, children were chosen because they were perceived as pure, and believed that adults did not possess the purity quality of children. Children from infant ages up until 15 years of age were used for the ceremony, but only those that exhibited physical beauty, health and their bodies free of irregularities were selected. Because the child would be thought of as a messenger to the gods and representing a connection from the Incas to the gods, children with exaggerated beauty were chosen.

Before initiating a capacocha ceremony, the Inca sent out requests throughout the locals, asking for tribute payments of gold, silver, cloth, llamas, shells, including children up to 15 years of age.

In the Inca world, it was considered to be a high honor to be sacrificed. Parents would volunteer and offer their own children, and it is even thought that the chieftains even offered their own as well, with the emperor deciding whether to accept or decline the chieftain’s children. Parents who offered their children were rewarded and given social prestige.

Although children of both sexes were chosen, it seems females were sacrificed more often.

Once children were chosen for the capacocha, they were brought from their village to Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, with family members, local chiefs, and priests accompanying the child. The child would be greeted by the emperor, followed by gran feasts and ceremonies. The child would be lavished with the finest cloths, gold, and silver – worshipped like royalty. The whole process was rich in symbolism.

After several days of feasting, the priests would begin their journey to a chosen mountaintop within the Inca landscape.

Sacrifice and Mountaintops

The towering mountains
The towering mountains

Why did the Incas choose mountaintops as the ultimate place for a child sacrifice? With the geography of Inca enveloped by skyscraping mountains, not only did it become common  that gods rested on the celestial realms on mountaintops, but that the mountain themselves are gods. Apus, or mountain deities, was thought of as the gods of nature’s forces that oversaw agriculture and livestock. They were viewed as the guardians of the Inca people, who pierced the skies above, where the sacred condor soars. Even the rugged ascent represented a way of nearing the sun god Inti.

The Inca priests began the arduous ascent to the mountaintop, a process that could  take months. Chiefs and people from child’s region came along to assist in carrying supplies and offerings. Sometimes, the child’s parents would come along. The journey would take them to elevations as high as 23,000 feet.

It was an incredible undertaking to carry out a capacocha on a mountaintop. Equipment was hauled on the backs of hundreds of llamas and people. Archaeologist Johan Reinhard discovered the remains of numerous rest stops along one mountain. The sites suggest the rest stops were stocked with water and supplies, such as large cloth based tents. This would have alleviated the life-threatening cold in the high elevations.

Coca leaves
Coca leaves

As they ascended, the air became thinner. To help the child stay alive until the area of sacrifice, they fed them coca leaves, which assisted their breathing.

When reaching the designated area on the mountaintop, a sacrificial structure would be waiting for them. Incans began building the structure beforehand. It consisted of a flat platform encased in stone walls, creating a tomb-like structure.

Here, priests would raise their wooden vessels toward the sun and asked for its  blessings. The sounds of flutes and drums filled atmosphere as priests sang and gestured towards the snow-capped mountains surrounding them. They laid out offerings that were brought with them; maize, beans, vessels with maize beer, figurines, pottery, and weaved linen were among the many items. They chewed coca leaves in honor and burned incense. The smoke rising signaled the people below of the capacocha climax and began singing. The ceremonies continued, and then the priest would begin to feed the child chicha, an alcoholic drink made of maize. This would be done in an attempt to ease the cold and remove the fear of dying.

The sacrificial method involved in the capacocha consisted of four ways: strangulation, suffocation, buried alive, or by a sharp blow to the head. Upon sacrificing the child, it would be placed in the platform and buried with elaborate offerings of silver, gold, textile, ceramic, shell, ceremonial pots, statues made of precious metals, and other artifacts, like carvings of llamas. The capacocha ritual was complete.


Believing that the mountaintops are gods and a place closest to the heavens, mountaintops were the prevalent areas for capacochas. The Incas believed appeasement of the gods were fulfilled this way. After the capacocha, the burial sites were regarded as huacas, a sacred revered place, remaining a holy place that housed a child in the realms of the Inca gods