Inca Ice Maiden mummy tests false-positive for cocaine

By Rick Vecchio ✐ Peruvian Times Contributing Editor ☄

Did you read how scientists have determined that a 13-year-old girl selected for Inca ritual sacrifice 500 years ago was plied with massive amounts of alcohol and cocaine for up to a year before her death?

Ice Maiden of Llullaillaco discovered by Johan ReinhardAt least a dozen news outlets ran the story, including NBC News and the Los Angeles Times.

Cocaine? Really?

Well, technically, yes. But in reality, it was obnoxiously misleading coverage.

The pharmacologically active ingredient of coca is the alkaloid “cocaine” — not to be confused with the highly processed white powder. Yet, it appears that is what a bevy of seasoned journalists and their editors, who should have known better, wanted readers to think when they saw the sensational headlines.

In March 1999, high-altitude archaeologists Johan Reinhard and Constanza Ceruti discovered the “Ice Maiden” and a boy and a girl, between the ages of 4 and 5, entombed near the 6,739-meter summit of Mt. Llullaillaco in Argentina.

You might have watched the great 2007 National Geographic documentary about the work of British researcher Andrew Wilson and his team studying the mummies.

They speculated the children may have been buried alive, given that their internal organs and brains were preserved intact. They verified that the children had been “fattened up” with high protein diets of “elite” foods such as maize and llama meat for months before they were left to freeze to death.

They also confirmed that the Maiden was fed fermented maize beer and chewed coca leaves before her death. A wad of the leaves was still in her mouth.

Wilson and his team conducted biochemical analysis of the mummies’ hair, which showed “escalating coca and alcohol ingestion in the lead-up to death.” That was what prompted the “Cocaine” headlines this week.

The elaborate chemistry to produce cocaine hydrochloride was developed more than 300 years after the fall of the Inca Empire.

Since the 1970s, cocaine production has developed into the illicit process we know today. Carried out in South American jungle settings in toxic maceration pits, tons of coca leaf is soaked in water and sulfuric acid, mixed in calcium oxide or sodium carbonate. The resulting semi processed paste is then mixed with kerosene to remove impurities, and later remixed with ether or acetone and more hydrochloric acid, and finally dried under heat lamps.

The decidedly more innocent laurel-shaped coca leaf is still revered as sacred in Andean religion and is is completely legal for traditional medicinal and ritual uses in Peru and Bolivia. Coca releases alkaloids when chewed, or steeped in an herbal tea, producing a mild stimulant that helps the bloodstream absorb and process oxygen at high altitude, as well as stave off hunger and fatigue.

Some of those same alkaloids are present in cocaine hydrochloride. That is why chewing coca or drinking coca tea can leave incriminating chemical markers that produce a false positive result for cocaine in urine tests.

Advice for athletes or government employees who might be subject to drug testing: avoid coca tea. But for everyone else going to Cusco, Puno, La Paz or other high-altitude destinations, drink up.

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