FIFA banned Guerrero for a year, meaning that he would miss the World Cup. Guerrero (whose name, in Spanish, means “warrior”) fought the ban, saying that he had merely drunk a tea that included coca leaves—a common enough beverage in Peru, though ...
This June, for the first time since 1982, Peru’s national soccer team, popularly known as Los Incas, will compete in the FIFA World Cup. The squad is headed to Russia in no small part because its captain and star striker, Paolo Guerrero, got lucky in the qualifiers on an indirect free kick that Colombia’s keeper palmed into his own net. For a few weeks at the end of last year, however, it looked as though Guerrero’s luck had run out. In early December, FIFA announced that he had violated the governing body’s anti-doping regulations by testing positive for benzoylecgonine, a chemical byproduct of the metabolism of cocaine, the active alkaloid found in the leaves of the Andean coca plant. FIFA banned Guerrero for a year, meaning that he would miss the World Cup.
Guerrero (whose name, in Spanish, means “warrior”) fought the ban, saying that he had merely drunk a tea that included coca leaves—a common enough beverage in Peru, though Guerrero lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he plays for the soccer club Flamengo. But his claim paved the way for his Brazilian lawyers to mount an even more interesting defense, introducing FIFA to its oldest, and highest, character witnesses ever: the Children of Llullaillaco, three mummies named for the icy, twenty-two-thousand-foot-tall volcano in Argentina where they were left by the Incas, five hundred years ago.
It was a creative choice, to say the least, but also cruelly ironic. The Children of Llullaillaco were the objects of a capacocha ritual, in which the Incas required that subject peoples yield some of their children to an empire that was as long as the continental United States is wide. Capacocha children were cultivated for a year or more before being escorted to peaks in the Andes on the occasion of the ascension or death of an emperor, or a natural disaster. When they arrived—having climbed higher than any European would ascend until the nineteenth century—they were killed or left to freeze as ever-living emissaries to the cosmos. They died so that the empire might live, but their placement on highly visible peaks in distant territories may have delivered its own message to newly incorporated peoples.
The Children of Llullaillaco ranged from six to fifteen years old when they died, around the year 1500, and went undisturbed until 1999, when a team of Argentine, Peruvian, and North American mountaineers and archeologists located their interment, almost at Llullaillaco’s peak. They are arguably the best-preserved ancient bodies ever found—their eldest, dubbed La Doncella (“the Maiden”), looks as if she had just nodded off to sleep—but their removal and subsequent study and refrigerated display in a museum in Salta, Argentina, engendered protest by some Argentine archeologists and indigenous peoples. The head of the country’s Indigenous Association called it “a violation of our loved ones.” Having survived the Spanish invasion that vanished the mummies of their Inca overlords, the capacochas became lightning rods for debates over imperialism in the Andes. Does it always come at the tip of a spear? When does it come with a trowel? That dynamite-armed treasure hunters and climate change have since threatened other mountaintop mummy bundles complicates the matter further still.
What most interested Guerrero’s lawyers, however, was what the Children of Llullaillaco ate and drank. Using CT scans of their bodies and analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in their hair, archeologists have been able to reconstruct the final moments of their lives in tremendously sympathetic detail, complicating Spanish portrayals of the capacochas as meanly brutal sacrifices. One study from 2013, led by Andrew Wilson, an archeologist at the University of Bradford, in England, demonstrated that La Doncella’s diet changed dramatically about a year before her death, from one centered on potatoes to one rich in animal and vegetable protein, including corn. This likely reflected her incorporation as an aclla of the Inca, a chosen woman, who would have enjoyed better food as well as chicha—the alcoholic corn drink shared in ritual feasting. The analysis of the Maiden’s hair showed that her consumption of chicha peaked in the weeks before she died, and may have been used to sedate her and her companions to assist their transformation into breathless and frozen mountain beings.
Most important, La Doncella also tested positive for benzoylecgonine, just as Guerrero had. Obviously, the Maiden wasn’t snorting; cocaine, the drug, was only isolated as an alkaloid in the mid-nineteenth century. But the result showed that her life as a capacocha gave her increased access to the sacred Andean plant from which it came—the coca leaf itself, which, when chewed with a reagent such as powdered lime, acts as a mild stimulant, suppressing fatigue, hunger, thirst, pain, and the symptoms of altitude sickness. Coca was a highly controlled substance under Inca rule, a privilege of the imperial and religious élite, and a ritual offering in its own right. As Wilson and his colleagues noted, a quid of the leaves was found “still clenched between the Maiden’s teeth.”
Whether Guerrero drank coca or inhaled it is between him and his doctor. But his lawyers cited the 2013 paper in their defense to FIFA, arguing that it indicated that benzoylecgonine could hang around in a body for centuries—in other words, that Guerrero’s tests simply showed that he, like La Doncella, at one point in the possibly distant past had consumed a sacred leaf whose ancient cultivation is overshadowed by its modern criminalization as a drug. That criminalization, and the black market it created, affects the lives of millions in the region, and was now denying Los Incas their best shot in a generation at winning a World Cup.
As arguments go, it was a bold one and is unlikely to be repeated, given its play with the science. Had La Doncella somehow escaped her life and death under Inca rule, her hair would not have shown evidence of coca use in perpetuity. Cocaine byproducts do not persist in the body forever—and if hair, when it is tested, is short, then the presence of benzoylecgonine suggests that consumption was fairly recent.
But FIFA was moved nonetheless. On December 20th, soccer’s governing body announced that it was halving Guerrero’s ban, from a year to six months, meaning that he could play in the World Cup after all. In interviews, his lawyer Bichara Neto admitted that the mummy argument on its own would not have worked; it was only alongside others that it had been decisive. At the very least, it was good press—a Doncella story with a happier ending for Peru and its Guerrero Inca.
Whether recruiting the Children of Llullaillaco to play for Peru extends old imperialisms or thwarts new ones—or is some historically fitting compromise of the two—is worth asking. The answer likely depends as much on where you stand on the rights of the dead as it does on how you feel about the world’s most popular sport. Like many religions, soccer demands its sacrifices, the dearer the better. But, given how these three children were as unwillingly drafted by Guerrero’s lawyers as they were by the Incas—and the museums that display them—the soccer star, who happens to be training in Argentina this month, might give his new teammates a thoughtful visit, and even an offering of his own.
History’s recommendation? Coca.