As Peru Heads to the 2018 World Cup, Its Star Striker Has Three Inca Mummies to Thank

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This June, for the first time since 1982, Peru’s national soccer team,
popularly known as Los Incas, will compete in the FIFA World Cup. The
squad is headed to Russia in no small part because its captain and star
striker, Paolo Guerrero, got lucky in the qualifiers on an indirect free
kick that Colombia’s keeper palmed into his own net. For a few weeks at
the end of last year, however, it looked as though Guerrero’s luck had
run out. In early December, FIFA announced that he had violated the
governing body’s anti-doping regulations by testing positive for
benzoylecgonine, a chemical byproduct of the metabolism of cocaine,
the active alkaloid found in the leaves of the Andean coca plant. FIFA banned Guerrero for a year, meaning that he would miss the World Cup.

Guerrero (whose name, in Spanish, means “warrior”) fought the ban,
saying that he had merely drunk a tea that included coca leaves—a common
enough beverage in Peru, though Guerrero lives in Rio de Janeiro, where
he plays for the soccer club Flamengo. But his claim paved the way for
his Brazilian lawyers to mount an even more interesting defense,
introducing FIFA to its oldest, and highest, character witnesses ever:
the Children of Llullaillaco, three mummies named for the icy,
twenty-two-thousand-foot-tall volcano in Argentina where they were left
by the Incas, five hundred years ago.

It was a creative choice, to say the least, but also cruelly ironic. The
Children of Llullaillaco were the objects of a capacocha ritual, in
which the Incas required that subject peoples yield some of their
children to an empire that was as long as the continental United States
is wide. Capacocha children were cultivated for a year or more before
being escorted to peaks in the Andes on the
occasion
of the
ascension or death of an emperor, or a natural disaster. When they
arrived—having climbed higher than any European would ascend until the
nineteenth century—they were killed or left to freeze as ever-living
emissaries to the cosmos. They died so that the empire might live, but
their placement on highly visible peaks in distant territories may have
delivered its own message to newly incorporated peoples.

The Children of Llullaillaco ranged from six to fifteen years old when
they died, around the year 1500, and went undisturbed until 1999, when a
team of Argentine, Peruvian, and North American mountaineers and
archeologists located their interment, almost at Llullaillaco’s peak.
They are arguably the best-preserved ancient bodies ever found—their
eldest, dubbed La Doncella (“the Maiden”), looks as if she had just
nodded off to sleep—but their removal and subsequent study and
refrigerated display in a museum
in Salta, Argentina, engendered protest by some Argentine archeologists
and indigenous peoples. The head of the country’s Indigenous Association
called
it
“a violation of our loved ones.” Having survived the Spanish invasion
that vanished the mummies of their Inca overlords, the capacochas became lightning rods for debates over imperialism in the Andes. Does it
always come at the tip of a spear? When does it come with a trowel? That
dynamite-armed treasure hunters and climate change have since threatened
other mountaintop mummy bundles complicates the
matter
further still.

What most interested Guerrero’s lawyers, however, was what the Children
of Llullaillaco ate and drank. Using CT scans of their bodies and
analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in their hair,
archeologists have been able to reconstruct the final moments of their
lives in tremendously sympathetic detail, complicating Spanish
portrayals of the capacochas as meanly brutal sacrifices. One study
from 2013, led by Andrew Wilson, an archeologist at the University of
Bradford, in England, demonstrated that La Doncella’s diet changed
dramatically
about a
year before her death, from one centered on potatoes to one rich in
animal and vegetable protein, including corn. This likely reflected her
incorporation as an aclla of the Inca, a chosen woman, who would have
enjoyed better food as well as chicha—the alcoholic corn drink shared
in ritual feasting. The analysis of the Maiden’s hair showed that her
consumption of chicha peaked in the weeks before she died, and may
have been used to sedate her and her companions to assist their
transformation into breathless and frozen mountain beings.

Most important, La Doncella also tested positive for benzoylecgonine,
just as Guerrero had. Obviously, the Maiden wasn’t snorting; cocaine,
the drug, was only isolated as an alkaloid in the mid-nineteenth
century. But the result showed that her life as a capacocha gave her
increased access to the sacred Andean plant from which it came—the coca
leaf itself, which, when chewed with a reagent such as powdered lime,
acts as a mild stimulant, suppressing fatigue, hunger, thirst, pain, and
the symptoms of altitude sickness. Coca was a highly controlled
substance under Inca rule, a privilege of the imperial and religious
élite, and a ritual offering in its own right. As Wilson and his
colleagues noted, a quid of the leaves was found “still clenched between
the Maiden’s teeth.”

Whether Guerrero drank coca or inhaled it is between him and his doctor.
But his lawyers cited the 2013 paper in their defense to FIFA, arguing
that it indicated that benzoylecgonine could hang around in a body for
centuries—in other words, that Guerrero’s tests simply showed that he,
like La Doncella, at one point in the possibly distant past had
consumed a sacred leaf whose ancient cultivation is overshadowed by its
modern criminalization as a drug. That criminalization, and the black
market it created, affects the lives of millions in the region, and was
now denying Los Incas their best shot in a generation at winning a
World Cup.

As arguments go, it was a bold one and is unlikely to be repeated, given
its play with the science. Had La Doncella somehow escaped her life
and death under Inca rule, her hair would not have shown evidence of
coca use in perpetuity. Cocaine byproducts do not persist in the body
forever
—and if hair, when it is tested, is short,
then the presence of benzoylecgonine suggests that consumption was
fairly recent.

But FIFA was moved nonetheless. On December 20th, soccer’s governing
body announced that it was halving Guerrero’s ban, from a year to six
months, meaning that he could play in the World Cup after all. In
interviews, his lawyer Bichara Neto admitted that the mummy argument on
its own would not have
worked
;
it was only alongside others that it had been decisive. At the very
least, it was good press—a Doncella story with a happier ending for
Peru and its Guerrero Inca.

Whether recruiting the Children of Llullaillaco to play for Peru extends
old imperialisms or thwarts new ones—or is some historically fitting
compromise of the two—is worth asking. The answer likely depends as much
on where you stand on the rights of the dead as it does on how you feel
about the world’s most popular sport. Like many religions, soccer
demands its sacrifices, the dearer the better. But, given how these
three children were as unwillingly drafted by Guerrero’s lawyers as they
were by the Incas—and the museums that display them—the soccer star, who
happens to be training in Argentina this month, might give his new
teammates a thoughtful visit, and even an offering of his own.

History’s recommendation? Coca.



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