Explorer-anthropologist and Rolex Laureate Johan Reinhard, renowned worldwide for his 1995 discovery of an Inca sacrificial mummy, called the “Ice Maiden” high in the Andes, has been honoured with the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, which recognizes remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions.
The medal was presented on 11 December 2017 during the 4th Mountain Festival – at a ceremony in the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara, Nepal’s second-biggest city. Dr Seth Sicroff, Director of the Hillary Medal Project, praised Reinhard highly, describing him as “one of the most influential and most honoured adventurer-scholars in history”.
“When I first heard about the medal, I thought it’s going to be a bad comparison [between Hillary and himself],” Reinhard says. “But we did share some things. He went out of his way to preserve the environment and the culture of mountain peoples. The medal honours what he was trying to do − help mountain people, especially the Sherpas. In those years in the 1950s, when Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Mount Everest, Sherpas were not getting credit and Hillary was annoyed with that. They love him there.”
Born in the United States, Reinhard has spent five decades as an archaeologist and anthropologist exploring the mountain regions of Nepal and the Andes in Latin America. His research has focused on the sacred beliefs and cultural practices of mountain peoples in the Andes and Himalayas, and on preserving their cultural patrimony.
At age 74, he still climbs mountains, though slowly due to his knees. “I haven’t been climbing higher than 17,000 feet [5,181 metres], because there hasn’t been a reason to.”
Anthology of articles
On his latest trip to Nepal he researched tribes whom he had studied 50 years ago, including the Kusunda tribe, which has its own language, part of a unique language family. Only two Kusunda members now speak the language fluently. “I’m getting material together for a book that includes an anthology of articles from 50 years ago and I am trying to update them,” said Reinhard, who has also worked with fellow Rolex Laureate Professor George van Driem, an expert on Himalayan languages.
Reinhard met Hillary several times: “He was a wonderful guy… He wanted people to see that he was giving something back. I have the same feeling of hoping to do some good.”
Whereas Hillary was able to raise major contributions for building schools because of his conquest of Everest, Reinhard has had a different approach. “I have been studying the culture, which in the Andes included excavations that resulted in museums being built in three countries. There are different ways to contribute,” he notes.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Dr Reinhard are also linked by the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Hillary was a member of the 1993 Rolex Awards Jury and Reinhard won a Rolex Award in 1987 for his project “to rescue and preserve the cultural patrimony of the Andean people” and was a member of the 1998 Rolex Awards Jury.
“The Rolex Award was very important to me in 1987,” Reinhard said. “I was just at the end of a grant I had received. I had never had a salary. With the Rolex money, I was able to go and do work I had wanted to do for years, including excavating sites. I had never had that flexibility until I got the Rolex Award. You’re automatically seen as someone who is legitimate. I had published material before, but after the Award you are recognized.”
Reinhard spent more than a decade in Nepal, but he is most famous for his discoveries in the Andes, particularly the “Ice Maiden” in Peru, followed by the discovery in 1999 of three mummies at 6,700 metres (22,000 feet) on the border between Argentina and Chile.
“The 1999 group had a sacrificial mummy of a young woman as well, so they were like bookends,” Reinhard explained, adding that the small museum [the High Mountain Archaeological Museum] that holds them is the second most popular in Argentina.
“At the time of discovery, we did not know you would be able one day, from their hair, to determine changes of diets. So, you can see how the “Ice Maiden’s” diet changed two years before she died. As technology keeps developing, you find out more… If you take a frozen human, it’s literally a time capsule.”
“The mummies are magnets for children, and as such make wonderful tools for education. Alongside adventure, it is possible to study disciplines such as the science surrounding DNA or ornithology, studying the feathers the mummies were wearing when we found them. You can go on to discuss geography, politics,” he notes.
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