She was Discovered as a 500-Year-Old Incan Mummy. Scientists Re-Created Her Face.

Courtesy of Dagmara Socha
The model of Juanita, the Incan girl discovered as a frozen mummy in Peru in 1995.

In 1995, explorer Johan Reinhard made a startling discovery on the frigid peaks of the Andes. In a crater near the summit of Ampato, a dormant Peruvian volcano, lay a frozen bundle of cloth roughly the size of a person. Reinhard inspected it. He found a withered human face poking through the rags.

Reinhard had discovered an Incan teenager, who would come to be known as Juanita, or the Maiden of Ampato: a roughly 13-year-old girl sacrificed by the Incas who had been preserved almost perfectly for centuries as a frozen mummy.

The discovery on Ampato, a sacred mountain for the Incas, electrified scientists and historians. In her unique condition, Juanita offered remarkable insight into the Incan Empire, its culture – and Juanita herself. She was displayed in Washington and Japan before returning to Peru, and Time magazine declared her one of the year’s biggest discoveries.

On Tuesday, researchers unveiled a stunning milestone in the study of Juanita. Researchers from Peru, Poland and Sweden created a lifelike silicone model of her face that approximates the girl’s appearance at the time of her death, according to an announcement from the Catholic University of Santa María in Peru, where Juanita is displayed.

Twenty-eight years after her discovery, the mummy that captivated the world has a face.

“It’s beautifully done,” Reinhard told The Washington Post. ” . . . you look in the eyes and honest to God, they look like the eyes are alive.”

Reinhard said he never thought he’d see Juanita in such a light, not least of all in 1995 as he and a partner hauled the roughly 1oo-pound mummy down from Ampato’s summit. Juanita’s discovery was a story of serendipity and grit; she was revealed only when a neighboring volcano’s eruption melted Ampato’s snowcap, allowing Reinhard to inspect its summit. Reinhard and his partner had little equipment or help to bring Juanita back from the mountain. But they made the precarious, hours-long trek down with the mummy in tow.

It was worth the effort. Though the cloth had torn around Juanita’s face, the rest of her body was almost perfectly preserved by the unique combination of mummification and the freezing cold, which had warded off any decomposition or decay. Reinhard knew he’d brought home a phenomenal find.

“Mummies frozen naturally, frozen at the time of death, are the closest thing I think we’ll ever have to true time capsules,” Reinhard said.

An analysis of Juanita’s skull found that she died from a sharp blow to her right temple, Reinhard said. He placed Juanita’s death sometime between 1450 and 1532, based on the period when the Incas were active in the region, he wrote in National Geographic in 1996. She was probably sacrificed, like other Incan human sacrifices, to appease the mountain gods believed to supply Incan fields and villages with water, according to Reinhard.

Juanita, hunched in a fetal position, was buried in a tomb that was dislodged by a rockslide, spilling her and a bounty of pottery and other treasures across the icy summit of Ampato, Reinhard wrote. He could only speculate on Juanita’s final moments: a pilgrimage from her village that ended in the exhausting climb up Ampato, accompanied by priests and llamas carrying ritual offerings.

“Although she must have been frightened, she may have felt honored to be selected as a sacrifice, imagining perhaps that she was entering a glorious afterlife,” Reinhard wrote.

Dagmara Socha, an archaeologist with the University of Warsaw’s Center for Andean Studies, said the idea to create the model came after researchers created a CT scan of Juanita’s face in 2022. As she reviewed the images for a separate study, Socha and her team realized the scan could also help bring Juanita to life.

Socha contacted Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish archaeologist and sculptor who specializes in facial models to help the researchers turn their scans into a lifelike reconstruction. In a process that took around 400 hours, Nilsson 3D-printed a replica of Juanita’s skull, molded her facial tissue using clay and then cast the face in silicone, he wrote in an email to The Post.

Besides the data from the skull, the well-preserved mummy helped Nilsson ensure the model’s accuracy. He collected measurements of Juanita’s nasal cavities, eye sockets and teeth, and referenced the hairstyle she’d been preserved with. Analysis of Juanita’s DNA was also used to inform the model, according to the Catholic University of Santa María.

The model of Juanita was dressed in clothes made in Peru, Nilsson said. He took liberties only when choosing the expression on the model’s face.

“In Juanita’s case I wanted her to look both scared and proud,” Nilsson wrote.

The model was unveiled Tuesday in a ceremony at the university, with Reinhard and Socha in attendance.

Socha said work is underway to carbon-date Juanita, which could reveal further clues to the circumstances of her life: Any recorded natural disasters or historical events that coincided with the time of her death might explain the reasons for her sacrifice.

Reinhard is optimistic that Juanita’s preservation means there’s more still to be revealed about her as research techniques progress. The startling, lifelike model of the Incan girl, he said, is proof of that.

“What we thought were miracles 20 years ago are commonplace today,” he said. ” . . . That’s probably going to be nothing compared to what we’re going to get down the road.”