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A higher passion
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Aside from lust, passion gets short shrift these days. We’re big on beauty, a sucker for charm. We like charisma. We love fine things.

But passion, as a personality trait, as something to teach children, either in school or at home, is rarely mentioned.

If you’re lucky, you find something early on that drives your engine, that defines your world. For some it’s the ocean. For others it’s music, shoes, finding a way to make money.

Constanza Ceruti’s passion is mountains.

Which is strange, considering she was born and reared in Buenos Aires, a city in Argentina almost as flat as Savannah.

For the longest time, Ceruti -- one of five high-altitude archaeologists in the world, and in Savannah last week as the keynote speaker for a conference on the Americas at Armstrong Atlantic State University -- didn’t know this about herself. Then she went on vacation with her family to Cordoba, another Argentinean town.

Then she climbed a hill. “Not a big hill,” she says. “A hill.” A hill with a view.

She was 14. What she saw from the top of that hill resonated. What she experienced lodged in her brain and dislodged something else. She started dreaming about that day, about vistas and panoramas, about landscapes. She started looking for other hills -- or mountains -- to climb.

Not that Ceruti, a quiet woman, a little shy, somewhat reserved, didn’t have strong views, maybe even premonitions about her future. She was nine when at a country fair, she saw a picture of a mummy. That’s when Ceruti, whose father is a psychiatrist and mother a physician specializing in forensics, decided she wanted to be a scientist.

But was she prescient, too?

Five years ago, while co-directing a 22,000-foot climb up the Andes Mountains, fending off temperatures of minus 20 degrees and using picks and shovels to dig deep into the peak of a volcano, Ceruti, 32, and her team found three very frozen, very old, very intact human beings: one young woman, one girl and one boy.

In the Inca world, human sacrifice was not unusual. To be chosen, says Ceruti, was an honor.

Because of the permafrost and the depth of the bodies, scientists consider the mummies the best-preserved ancient human remains ever discovered. Out of the 20 to 25 mummies found, Ceruti has been present for nearly half.

Ceruti says she knew the find was remarkable when she saw the children’s fingernails and fine hairs on their arms, still preserved after five centuries. Most likely, the children, exhausted by the climb, died by exposure to the cold.

Ceruti -- named a few months ago as one of eight people in the National Geographic Emerging Explorer’s Program for 2005 -- assumes the ice mummies, buried five feet deep in frozen ground some 500 years ago, were sacrificial victims offered to Inca deities.

As was typical, the young girl, around six, wore a white feather headdress, a yellow mantle with ornate geometric patterns and a shawl with bone and metal adornments on the shoulder. She had braids. The boy, age seven, wore a red tunic, a silver bracelet, moccasins.

All three were wrapped in textiles. The head and hand of the 14-year-old girl were visible, however, because lightning must have seared the fabric.

“Her head was blackened,” Ceruti says, “but honestly, to look at her hand no one could tell it belonged to a dead person.”

When the bodies were discovered, there was perfect silence, Ceruti says, “mute contemplation.”

Scientists to the core, neither Ceruti nor the others disturbed the outer wrappings of the children, who represent true time capsules. They took measurements, did drawings and in the case of the young boy, who was lodged in a very narrow crevice, dangled one of the team members by his ankles so he could haul the child up.

The crew spent 13 days on the mountain. Then, to preserve the integrity of the bodies, the team wrapped them in protective foam and dry ice and carried them down in backpacks.

Caution towards the bodies has continued. They are examined in 15-minute increments every four or five months. There have been CAT scans, needle biopsies and DNA analyses. There have been dental X-rays and samples extracted for hair analysis and textile experts to study the shawls.

From the X-rays they learned the children had been well-fed -- “so they could go into the next world full and happy” -- before making the trek up the mountain. Buried next to them in symbolic and deliberate order were small llama figurines, statuettes of gold and silver, food in the shape of ladders (“for the climb up”), sandals, wooden vessels and several seashell ornaments.

With the discovery of the bodies on Mt. Llullaillaco, the one-year modest stipend from National Geographic as an Emerging Explorer, her expertise (and doctorate) in the Inca Empire and a nimble handling of English and Italian, Ceruti is riding high these days.

Even speaking publicly, never her favorite activity, is getting easier. But beyond the academics, the expeditions, the discoveries, there is the passion.

“In my heart, it’s the mountains that I love so much,” she says. “If I couldn’t be an archaeologist, I’d find them and I’d climb them anyway. Archaeology is a way to serve the mountains. Because in the end, it’s the mountains that give you wisdom, that give you energy.”


Jane Fishman can be reached at