In an attractive Neo-Gothic building on the western side of Plaza 9 de Julio, the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM) is the one museum in Salta that you should not miss. It was specially created to present to the public the discovery of the so-called Llullaillaco Children, one of the most important archeological finds ever made in Argentina. In 1999, three naturally mummified Inca children were uncovered by an expedition of mountaineers and scientists on top of Volcán Llullaillaco, due west of Salta on the Chilean border and 6740m above sea level. They are a 6-year-old girl, visibly struck by lightning some time after her burial, her hair arranged in two small braids and with a metal plaque as an adornment (which attracted the lightning); a teenage girl whose face was painted with a red pigment and who had small fragments of coca leaves above her upper lip; and a 7-year-old boy wearing a white feather ornament tied around his head. Their incredibly well-preserved corpses – all three lived around 1490 AD – were at first kept in a university laboratory in the city while tests on their tissue and other remains were completed. They are now shown, one at a time, in specially refrigerated cases and the effect is startling.
The jury is still out as to whether it is sacrilegious to display the bodies in a public museum: the decision to do so provoked a furore, including demonstrations by representatives of local indigenous groups, so bear in mind that this is a sensitive issue. Certainly the fainthearted will want to skip the room where they are shown, as expressions of fear are clearly shown on their young faces – the children were sacrificed to the Inca deities, possibly in a fertility ceremony or as an offering to the gods of the sun and moon. They were probably knocked out with a blunt weapon (so their bodies were not rendered imperfect by wounds) and then left to die of the lack of oxygen and the extreme cold.
Over a hundred artefacts, part of the remarkably intact treasure-trove buried with the children at the end of the fifteenth century, are on display in the museum’s other rooms, where the temperature and humidity are kept artificially low – bring something warm to wear. The exhibit is both scientific and didactic, including a video about the expedition, displays of textiles and the like, but it is no musty old-fashioned museum. The ground-floor bookshop is prime hunting ground for souvenirs, mostly of very high quality, while the marvellous cafeteria, offering local specialities, is open daily from 8am to midnight.