Discovering the Inca Ice Maiden: My Adventures on Ampato // A Gift for Ampato

author: Johan Reinhard
National Geographic, 1998
grades 4-6 

Incredibly detailed, close-up photos of a frozen Incan mummy, a 14-year-old who lived about 500 years ago, send shivers up my spine. I don't think I'll sleep well tonight, picturing the little frozen girl clutching her dress tightly to her body. Why was she buried on the rim of a volcano? Was it human sacrifice, as the author states and describes in great detail? Or was it something else? I feel like he's taking me on an invasive tour of this young woman's death, relishing the blood-curdling “sacrifice” aspect of the whole tour de ice force.

Young readers will love Discovering the Inca Ice Maiden; it is easy to read, almost as if the author were telling a tale to a fourth- or fifth-grader, and the gruesome pictures will totally capture their interest. Strange that violence, mutilation, and human sacrifice are what make our children want to read. And it is this kind of information that the education system mandates in their social studies frameworks.

Reinhard takes us step by step on this “discovery” (I think “encountering” is a better word). It reminds me of Donald Johanson's writing about “Lucy,” the “Australopithecus Afarensis” woman he encountered in Hadar, Ethiopa. He stumbled on Lucy’s remains in much the same way Reinhard stumbled on the “Ice Maiden” by being in the right place at the right time, or as Johanson says, “I guess I'm just lucky. Luck plays a big part in this business.”

I found myself studying the many maps and photographs with a magnifying glass to sift through the grains of pumice, the volcanic ash, and the ice floes to see if I could uncover anything myself—the photographs from the National Geographic team are that clear and compelling.

Several years ago in Tampa, Florida, I toured an exhibit that had been confiscated as part of a smuggling plan gone awry. It was being displayed for a short time before being sent back to Cuzco. All of this is to say: What is the right way to handle cultural invasion? Ask a “leading authority” about human sacrifice in ancient Inca civilization? Send the mummy to Johns Hopkins for x-ray techno-games-analysis? Hurry back to the site to make sure no other “robber” gets the prize before “you” can cart it down the mountainside? You know, ethical things like that. Still, the story is compelling and I couldn't put it down. But I am pretty sure I'm going to have nightmares involving feathers and gold and silver statues—all very, very cold. Recommended with caveats.

author: Susan Vande Griek, Susan 
illustrator: Mary Jane Gerber
Groundwood Books, 1999
grades 5-8 

It was only a matter of time—one year, to be exact—before Reinhard’s finding found its way into a young adult novel. It happened in A Gift for Ampato, Susan Vande Griek’s heavy-handed, badly written, Eurocentric recreation of Inca society 500 years ago.

Timta and her friend Karwa are both selected to be “chosen ones,” young girls groomed for life in the sacrifice pool of the Great Inca. Chosen to become the ultimate sacrifice, Timta does not want the honor, saying to her friend,

I cannot see myself among the gods, Karwa. I only want to stay here among my people and the llamas in this stony valley. Oh, Karwa, you are so good, so believing, so sure of things. Why can't I be like that?

Karwa lets her off the hook by answering,

I think we are each as we are, Timta. What is right for me maybe is not what is right for you, no matter what the priests or women say. I would gladly go to the gods for my people, for you. Can you see that, Timta? Do you understand? I would go for you.

At the same time, Riti, whose own daughter had been sacrificed the last time the gods were angry (the volcano was letting off minor eruptions) has had it with these people. She packs up her things, loads them on her llamas, and is leaving for the coast when she meets up with the runaway Timta, saves her from the guards, and together they head down the mountain to a new life away from human sacrifice and false gods.

Maybe young Inca women were rebellious of family and society in those days. Maybe they did run away from responsibility. Maybe they did think of themselves as individuals rather than as members of a highly defined society. Maybe they would let a friend take their place at the most important event in their lives. Maybe they did possess the same values as modern American middle-class teenagers who are products of over-permissive parenting and a materialistic culture. Or, more likely, maybe the author decided that young readers couldn’t possibly relate to teenage members of a society in which emphasis is placed on the welfare of the group rather than that of the individual. In any case, this book just doesn’t work. 

Why is the idea of human sacrifice seen as something to which today’s young people cannot relate? Why are gory details that both fascinate and repel young people—and set into a fake social context—seen as worthwhile reading? If this concept were discussed in terms relevant to young people—like Buddhist monks who believe in something so deeply that they are willing to give their lives; or like young men being sent off to die in wars they do not understand—maybe then the term “human sacrifice” would make more sense. Not recommended.

—Judy Zalazar Drummond
(published 4/11/13)

These reviews, in a slightly different form, first appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005). We thank the publisher for permission.

1 comment:

  1. I see you have a point. Why do the protagonists simply run away from their society? Why do they not try to fight the priests who sentenced them to what is now (21st century) universally seen as ritual murder? Why do they not try to save the other women who are to be sacrificed as well? And why do they not try to change the rituals so that they don't involve killing anymore? Better yet, have them abolish execution of a prisoner in any form, and you'll have something.


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