The Llullaillaco Maiden was 13 when she was sedated and left to die in a chamber high on an Andean peak
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The Llullaillaco Maiden is the best preserved victim of child sacrifice in the pre-Columbian Americas. About 500 years ago Inca priests left her to die of exposure, at the age of 13, in a stone chamber near the top of one of the highest peaks in the Andes. Climbers discovered her body, naturally mummified by the cold, dry air, in 1999.

Now biochemical analysis of her beautifully braided black hair has shown that the girl consumed large amounts of cocaine – by chewing leaves of the coca plant – and alcohol in the two years before her death. The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Two younger sacrifices, a six-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy, were found in separate chambers near the 6,700m summit of Llullaillaco mountain. They had also consumed coca and alcohol, though in smaller quantities than the Maiden, who died with chewed coca leaves in her mouth.

Biochemical markers in this girl’s hair show her coca consumption rising sharply about a year before her death, and again six months later. Her alcohol intake – probably from a fermented maize drink called chicha – peaked in the final weeks of her life. The findings add insight to the accounts by Spanish colonists of capacocha, the child sacrifice ritual.

“We think it’s likely the Maiden was selected for sacrifice 12 months before her death,” says Andrew Wilson of Bradford University, lead author. “She was then probably involved in a series of rituals involving consumption of coca and alcohol in the build-up to her sacrifice.” Both were elite substances with ritual significance.

There was no evidence of violence to the three children, but the coca and alcohol they consumed must have both sedated them and hastened their deaths from extreme cold. All three mummies are now in the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña in Salta, Argentina.

The Maiden was found sitting cross-legged, head slumped forward and arms resting loosely on her lap. She was surrounded by various wooden, ceramic and textile artefacts, including drinking vessels, and the contents of her stomach provide evidence of a last meal a few hours before her death. The researchers believe she was placed in the chamber while heavily sedated, her position carefully arranged and the objects placed around her.

“From later colonial period accounts we have indications that children, often as young as four years old, and acllas, or chosen women selected around puberty, were donated for sacrifice by their parents from communities under control of the Inca empire,” says Wilson. “One account suggests that this was an honour and that no sadness could be shown when the children were gifted, but these transactions must have created a climate of fear.”

The outlook for Britain – more heavy rain

Atmospheric rivers, the moisture-laden airflows responsible for serious winter flooding in the mid-latitudes, are going to drench the British Isles more frequently as the climate changes over the next few decades.

That prediction comes from researchers at the universities of Reading and Iowa, who found that atmospheric rivers are very sensitive to changing temperature and humidity. After using five climate models successfully to simulate changes in their flow over the last 30 years, the scientists moved on to look at the future under various plausible climate-change scenarios.

All five models project an increase in the frequency and intensity of atmospheric rivers. In the worst scenario, the number affecting Britain – around 10 per year now – doubles by the end of this century.

Blowing in from the west, atmospheric rivers can carry vast amounts of water vapour from the Atlantic, which condenses and falls as continuous heavy rain when it is forced up over Europe’s western fringes.

A similar phenomenon affects the west of Canada and the US, where it is often known as the “Pineapple Express” because it transports moisture from the tropical Pacific around the pineapple-growing Hawaiian islands to coastal regions from California up to Alaska.

A typical atmospheric river is around 300km wide and thousands of kilometres long. The authors estimate that the one that brought severe floods to Cumbria in November 2009 carried water at a rate 4,500 times greater than the average flow of the Thames in London. “An increase in frequency is likely to lead to more heavy winter rainfall events and floods,” says David Lavers, lead author of the new study. “More intense atmospheric rivers are likely to lead to higher rainfall totals and thus larger flood events.”

The study is published in Environmental Research Letters.

Go wild: a new trend in seed collection

An international project to track and conserve the wild relatives of the world’s main food plants has identified 245 high-priority species for collection and storage in seed banks. They would be a source of genetic diversity for breeders seeking to make crops more productive and resilient.

Queen Anne’s lace: closely related to the carrot

The Crop Wild Relative Project, funded by a $50m, 10-year grant from the Norwegian government, has just completed its first study phase. This assessed 29 of the world’s most important food species, including cereals, vegetables, root crops, fruit and nuts.

The team – drawn from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and Birmingham University – analysed 455 wild species that are closely related to the domesticated crops. They found that just over half of these should be collected as a high priority because they are not present in seed banks or because existing collections do not represent their diversity in different environments.

Perhaps surprisingly, the five crops that need collecting most urgently are not staple cereals but aubergine, potato, apple, sunflower and carrot. “Cereals have received a lot more attention until now, so the collection of their wild relatives is more complete,” says Andy Jarvis of CIAT.

Jane Toll, of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, mentions another surprise: “Crop wild relatives in some areas in Australia, Europe and the USA need to be collected just as much as those in regions of Africa, Asia and South America.”

Now that the project’s data analysis is nearing completion, the partners are preparing to move on to the next phase: collecting high-priority seeds and making them available to crop breeders. Collecting, led by Kew, will start in Portugal and Italy this summer.

Even the UK, one of the most intensively collected places on Earth, needs more work. Wild British relatives of apple, carrot and the forage crops alfalfa and vetch are on the high-priority list. For example, Queen Anne’s lace is closely related to the carrot, though its roots are tough and unpalatable. Scientists believe breeders could use genes from Queen Anne’s lace to protect carrots against pests and environmental stress.

Seeds collected through the project will be dried, deep-frozen and stored in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, which already holds material from 33,000 species – about 10 per cent of the world’s plants. The bank’s target for 2020 is 75,000 species, or 25 per cent of the global flora.

“Crop wild relatives are already being used to make improvements to our food crops and are extremely valuable economically, but they are underutilised,” says Ruth Eastwood, project co-ordinator at Kew.

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