“An Encounter: Pre-history”


San Pedro de Quemes was not explicitly on our itinerary in Bolivia. All it said was “local hotel”. This can make you a little anxious. It was in fact a fine, small place, very welcoming and well-appointed, but our stay was overnight, brief.

We arrived early evening, detached ourselves from our guides to find a local museum mentioned at the hotel, and walked into the village. (Wikipedia: ‘574 inhabitants’.)


When we reached the museum, it was locked shut. The young man in an internet room somewhere above insisted, through our broken Spanglish, on phoning someone to let us in. A few minutes later, an eager figure appeared, unlocked the museum, and showed us in.

ImageThe Museo Arqueológico “La Niña de Quemes” is modest in size, essentially a single large, stone-walled room, but superb in proportion to the village.

The guide radiated as much enthusiasm as warmth. He took us through all the items on show, but the museum was created to display a mummified child. In the centre, in a glass case and surrounded by ancient artefacts, lay the body of a girl, around the age of three. Her skull is artificially elongated. The scene is very affecting; I could not bring myself to take a photograph of her. Many years ago, we’d seen similar figures in the museum at San Pedro de Atacama: they’ve since being removed out of respect.

But our host clearly did not share such concern: these were his ancestors, his people. He wished to describe their lives, to show the – very beautiful – objects. He explained how the child would have been heavily drugged before becoming a sacrifice; he showed us the various devices to ingest the drugs, and traces of the plants used to create them. We saw, too, the exquisitely crafted clothes, weavings and decorations for the child.

He had us understand that the sacrifice of this child indicated an exceptional circumstance. Her elongated head – and the richness of her accoutrements – indicated very high status. The surmise is that this was in response to a major catastrophe – ‘terremoto’ – an earthquake of terrifying scale. Only such a calamity would account for such a sacrifice. All this in Spanish; the floor and cases shook in the telling.

I took no picture of the child. I do have a fine picture of our expert, ‘Prof. Hist. Hugo Tejerina Quispe’, and on his sweatshirt “ABORIGEN”.


The above was one of three which I submitted to a travel writing competition in The Guardian in 2012. It had to be no more than 400 words. I think I failed to convey just what a privilege it felt to visit this place, to meet the man, and hear his account of the child and the society. Would that my Spanish had been better, and, arguably, my writing. The competition did not permit pictures, but here I can add them.