SALTA, Argentina - Museumgoers gasped Thursday at the well-preserved mummy of an Inca maiden which is on display for the first time, a serene gaze etched on her face hundreds of years ago when she froze to death in the Andes.Hundreds of people packed a museum in Salta, Argentina, to see "la Doncella" — Spanish for "the Maiden" — a 15-year-old girl whose remains were found in 1999 in an icy pit on Llullaillaco volcano, along with a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy.
Scientists believe the so-called Children of Llullaillaco were sacrificed more than 500 years ago in a ceremony marking the annual corn harvest. Dressed in fine clothes and given corn alcohol to put them to sleep, the victims were then left to die at an elevation of 22,080 feet.
"Just this morning we have had more than 700 people come see the exhibit, and we had hundreds yesterday when it opened," said High Mountain Archaeological Museum director Gabriel Miremont.
The mummy is kept in a chamber that pumps chilled air through a low-oxygen atmosphere, simulating the subfreezing conditions where it was found. The other two children are being studied and not on display.
Seated with her legs bent and her arms resting on her stomach, the Maiden's remains are still adorned with a gray shawl and bone and metal ornaments. Scientists say her face was daubed with red pigment and around her mouth they found flecks of coca leaf, which is chewed by highland Indians to blunt the effects of altitude.
The Children of Llullaillaco were found at the highest elevation ever discovered for sacrificial victims of the former Inca empire, which ran along the Andes from present-day northern Argentina to Peru.
Several Indian groups waged a losing campaign to prevent the remains from going on display, arguing that the mummies should be buried or at least kept from public view.
The exhibit is a "great mistake," said Miguel Suarez, a representative of the Calchaquies valley tribes in and around Salta.