FAQs & Further Resources

From interviews in 1997

1.   How did you get into this business?  Many people are surprised when I tell them that I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, because I have lived most of my life outside the USA and even my name is foreign. But I actually lived the first 18 years of my life in New Lenox, Illinois, which when I was born in 1943 was a village of 800 people in the middle of farm country. My early adventures were of hunting, fishing, and camping along Hickory Creek, which flowed through our town. Like some of my friends, I collected fossils and arrowheads, read the Hardy Boys, and experimented with rockets…most of which exploded on the launch pad. I began to read more about explorers, especially Jacques Cousteau, Richard Halliburton, and Thor Heyerdahl (my mother was Norwegian--hence my first and middle names), and I was soon dreaming of visiting faraway lands.           

          The first opportunity to be on my own came when I was 16 years old. I worked with Southerners on a railroad line gang traveling throughout the Midwest.  We dug holes by hand and put up telegraph poles. The men were all much older than me and came from much different backgrounds. To me they were like people from another world—and in a way they were. As a Northerner I was beaten up a few times and had to act and talk like they did in order to become accepted. Without knowing it, I had begun to behave like an anthropologist, constantly learning more about how these strange men thought. Perhaps even more importantly, I discovered that I could do hard labor and earn my own keep--and thus independence. 

When I graduated from high school, I traveled alone to South America with money I had saved from working two summers on the line gang. It was during that trip that I knew that my fascination with other cultures was not just a passing fad. I decided that I wanted to learn more about civilizations of the past and cultures of people living today in other parts of the world. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out that there was an actual profession for doing this…anthropology.

The more I read about anthropology, the more I thought that I should learn tools that I could use in different situations I might find myself. Some of these tools were academic ones, such as linguistics (which taught me how to learn unwritten languages) and archaeological excavation techniques. Others were rather less academic, and included sky diving, scuba diving, mountain climbing, cave exploring, and sailing.  I thought of myself, rather naively to be sure, as becoming a "para-anthropologist," able to undertake exploration in places that few, if any, anthropologists had worked before. There was one hurdle, though: I had little--and often no--money. (This would remain a problem until I was over fifty!) 

After studying anthropology for a couple of years in the USA, it seemed to me only logical that, if I was going to be an anthropologist and live in other cultures and speak other languages, I might as well study anthropology in a foreign country and sort of kill two birds with one stone. So I went to Europe, took intensive German courses (despite my name, no one in our family spoke German), and then continued my studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

My first cultural anthropological field experience was in 1964 with sponge divers in Greece and soon afterwards my initial field archaeological experience was underwater in the Mediterranean Sea. Ironically, the first job I had in archaeology was also one of the most interesting that I have ever had. I was 21 years old and still studying anthropology at the University of Vienna, when I was able to work with one of the fathers of underwater archaeology, Peter Throckmorton. We spent the summer of 1965 conducting underwater archaeological surveys in the Mediterranean Sea and in a lake in northern Italy. We began by surveying and recovering Roman artifacts off the coast of southern Italy. Then we surveyed a village site of the nearly 3,000 year old Villanovan culture, and in the process uncovered artifacts that had never been seen before. I not only was able to learn how to do archaeology in the field (even if underwater!), I also was able to participate in some of the most exciting research being done at the time.

But my main desire was to gain experience in a culture as different from my own as possible, and so I focused on studying nomadic hunter-gatherers. Despite having made up more than 99 % of mankind's time on earth, only a few such societies existed in the world, and one I found was in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was interested in how they kept their way of life and what happened when some groups of their tribe had settled and taken up agriculture. But above all, I was fascinated by shamanism and how it related to the natural environment. Later my research focused on the importance of the sacred Himalayan mountains in Buddhism and Hinduism and on the “hidden lands” of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Over time my interests in mountains, religion, and archaeology grew together until I found that they combined in a unique way in the Andes. I was able to develop new theories based on original research to help explain some of the greatest enigmas of South American archaeology: the Nazca Lines (giant figures drawn in the desert of Peru over a millennium ago), Machu Picchu (the famous Inca site), Chavin de Huantar (which originated high in the Andes at nearly 1000 B.C. and is considered to be the first center of a shared Andean culture), and Tiahuanaco (the center for one of the most important Andean cultures which arose at about 300 A.D., affected much of the central Andes, and lasted until the end of the first millennium). My training in underwater archaeology led me to an investigation of one of the most sacred geographical features of the Andes: Lake Titicaca. Our work at an underwater site worshiped by both the Incas and the ancient people of Tiahuancaco marks the first true underwater archeological study that has been undertaken in the Andes and resulted in finds unique to the archaeological record. The study of mountain worship also led to my investigating the world’s highest archaeological sites. I was at first interested in trying to explain why the Incas had climbed to altitudes not even reached by man until 400 years later. I began surveying and excavating the sites, and my research over a 16 year period eventually led to the discovery of the Ice Maiden.

2.   What did you feel when you discovered the Ice Maiden?  I was at first excited, as I knew that it was rare to find such a mummy bundle in such a religious context and that much information could be obtained from everything associated with the body and from studies of the body itself.  But my excitement became much more intense when I realized the body was that of female and that it was frozen.  I knew that it was the first discovery of its kind, and it would be like a window into the past.  Many unique findings would be possible, e.g. the person’s diet, diseases, DNA, how Inca women wore their clothing, etc. 

3.   What is the emotional impact of looking off  Mt. Everest?  It was a strange mixture of awe at the beauty, while feeling insignificant and yet “on top of the world” at the same time.  There was a strong sense of fulfilling a lifetime’s dream in the midst of so much history. 

4.   Why do you continue in Peru?  We have established a fine team, both for the laboratory and for research in the mountains, and have for the first time a solid infrastructure of equipment (again both for the lab and mountains), all the while having several important sites to investigate.  

5.    What form of life did you discover in Chile in Licancabur volcano’s crater lake?  We found both phytoplankton and zooplankton, the latter being a new species of crustacean.  

6.   What did you think of all the press coverage given to the Ice Maiden?  It was more than I expected and generally was good and helpful both for the long-term conservation of the frozen mummy (by making its importance clear) and for the different levels of Peruvian society (village, city, and state), who were generally pleased at the publicity about the discovery and the mummy’s conservation and exhibition.  However, it was disturbing to see how rumors and false information could get so easily published.  I was surprised at how little even the best press organizations check the facts.  

7.   Why was the Ice Maiden named Juanita?  The Peruvian team members chose this because they wanted a name that was easy to remember and common in the villages (even among speakers of other languages).  It was not known where the Ice Maiden originally came from, and if from the Colca Canyon (near Ampato) then the two languages spoken there weren’t known.  And she could have easily been an Aymara or Quechua speaker.  In the end the team selected a simple name common even in areas where other languages are spoken.  In any event, that is what I was told at the time: I only later learned that they also chose it because it was close to my own.  However, it should be emphasized that the name was chosen informally to use among the team members (tired of just saying “the mummy”) and it became used by the public only after the press published it. 

8.   How would you define the dangers of your field of research?  The work I do on mountain summits is occasionally dangerous, more due to changing weather than to difficulties relating to climbing.  Electrical storms are especially to be feared and even a simple twisting of an ankle can cause serious problems when at altitudes over 20,000 ft high.  But I view this as part of the job and not much more dangerous than walking city streets at night or driving regularly in rush-hour traffic.  Accidents can mostly be avoided, if you are physically and mentally prepared and you carefully plan your work.

9.   What do you miss about the Himalayas?  The people of Nepal who are extremely friendly, especially if you speak the Nepali language.  The combination of rugged terrain, spectacular views, and fascinating cultures make for a wonderful combination, difficult to find anywhere else in the world. 

10. What would be your favorite place in the world?  Each place has its own special aspects.  I like the Himalayas for the reasons noted above.  But in the Andes there are so many fascinating places to explore and things to discover. 

11.  What transportation do you use?  Usually a variety of transportation is used to get to a place I work in the Andes and the Himalayas.  First, a plane (to reach the country or city), then a vehicle or small plane (to get nearer to the mountain), then (sometimes) a mule or horse (in the Andes) or porters (in the Himalayas) (to get to the foot of the mountain), and finally trekking and climbing to reach places higher on a mountain.

12.  What is your normal day at work like?  While at a site on a mountain, I usually have a simple breakfast while waiting for the sun to rise and warm up (a little anyway!) the air at our campsite.  I check my gear, the weather, and my teammates to see that all is well.   We go over the work plan and then climb to the actual site to begin surveying and excavating ruins.  At the end of the day we make sure all the finds are well protected and the notes are up-to-date, then return to camp to discuss the next day’s program and write up any further notes...and have a very welcome hot meal. Back in the city, my usual work day is much different, of course. It consists of writing, reading, correspondence…in short, the kind of normal hard work that is necessary to turn the discoveries and information obtained while on the mountain into something that can be used by others. 

13.  What equipment do you take with you to the mountains?  My work involves using not only the normal tools of archaeology (such as measuring tapes, trowels, brushes, scales, notebooks, GPS, cameras,etc.), but also mountaineering equipment (such as ice axes, backpacks, ropes, altimeters, climbing boots, special sleeping bags, clothing, stoves and tents, etc.) and medical supplies for emergencies.  I keep a checklist with categories for each kind of equipment I need.

14.  What is the most difficult thing about your high-altitude archaeological work?  The hardest thing about my job is keeping a team working hard over several days while everyone is suffering from the effects of the altitude to some degree.  Our work is usually above 17,000 ft and frequently much higher.  People tire quickly, lose their appetites, don’t sleep well, and often feel at least a little ill (headaches, nausea, coughs, sore throats, and colds are common).  I have to prepare for a third of the team not being able to work at the same time.  In the city the hardest thing is keeping up with all the reports, project proposals, correspondence, reading the constantly appearing scientific publications which relate to the project, etc. 

15.  What was the most important discovery you ever made?  That was probably the frozen Inca mummy (the “Ice Maiden”) that I recovered from 20,700 ft.  This is one of the best preserved mummies from ancient times, and it has provided a wealth of original information.  I am most proud, however, of the totality of the work I have done relating to mountain worship and high-altitude archaeology.  This is because it has led not only to new discoveries like the Ice Maiden and rare Inca artifacts, it has also led to increasing our understanding of Andean cultures in general.  I have been able to develop better explanations for some of archaeology’s greatest mysteries, such as the giant drawings in the desert in Peru (the Nazca Lines) and the ruins of Machu Picchu.  The discoveries I have made in my mind have been more exciting to me than those I have made in the field.

16.  How do you select a project?  I choose a project after I have weighed several factors:  Has it the potential to provide new knowledge or otherwise be beneficial to people?  Will I learn from it, both in a scientific sense and in terms of my own personal growth?  Can I do the job as well, or better than, other people who might do it?  Is it something that I will not regret having done, even if it is unsuccessful otherwise?   If I can answer yes to those questions, then the rest is easy.

17.  What other projects would you like to do in the future?  I have a large list of projects which I would like to undertake—so many in fact that I could never do them all even if I had all the money in the world and another lifetime to do them.  Most of all I hope to do several more high-altitude archaeological excavations in other Andean countries, since very few scientific excavations have ever been done, and they yield not only unique and well-preserved artifacts, but also a wealth of information about Inca religion.  Also, the sites are being rapidly destroyed by looters and the artifacts and information will soon be lost forever.  Aside from that, I want to continue with my research on the importance of the sacred Himalayas in Buddhism and Hinduism and my studies of the “hidden lands” of Tibetan Buddhism.

From Q & A in 2000

NOTE: Johan Reinhard is featured in the article "Iron Man of the Andes" in the January/February 2000 issue of National Geographic Adventure and was interviewed about the article after it appeared. It’s no great surprise that Johan Reinhard reveres Richard Burton--the explorer not the actor—for his intellectual curiosity combined with physical action. Athleticism plus intellect, after all, is the formula for Reinhard’s own success. In a time of exploration by electronic proxy, Reinhard’s a guy who “goes there:” diving for artifacts on the bottom of Lake Titicaca, searching for lost tribes of the Himalaya, and, most famously, wresting frozen Inca mummies from the world’s highest archaeological sites.

Q. What do you think went through the heads of Inca children who had been selected for sacrifice?

A. A fear of the unknown and a desire that someone else had been selected. Yet this fear would have been coupled with a certain pride and a firm belief that they were joining the gods.

Q. The article says you spend your evenings apart from the expedition. Why?

A. As expedition leader, at the end of the day I need time to write up notes, think over strategy, examine/clean gear (still and video cameras, a computer, etc.), recharge batteries (both material and human), and make calls and send/receive e-mail. Plus, I often work with the same team members and know them well. Evenings are when they need downtime.           

Q. Have you ever feared for your life?

A.  I’ve had a number of close calls. They proved to me that if a person isn’t very smart (and he couldn’t be if he’s had as many close calls as I have), he’d sure better be lucky.                                   

Q. Do you ever long for the settled life?

A. After every expedition! But I soon return to my senses.

Q. Do you worry that your finds will lure more looters to the high Andes?

A. Yes, but I know that the publicity also makes it more likely that the sites will be scientifically excavated and the finds preserved for future generations. Many of these sites have already been looted, and looting will increase irrespective of publicity: People in the Andes are desperate for ways to make money, and mountain climbing is becoming more common.

Q. Are people still making offerings to the mountains?

A. Yes. Many indigenous people make simple offerings; coca leaves, foods, herbs, special objects you can buy in a local market on a regular basis. And in some areas major pilgrimages are undertaken on special occasions to worship the mountains.

Q. How do you answer critics who claim that you are disturbing the dead or disrespecting other cultures?

A. The high-altitude sites are on mountains, which are by their nature large and accessible from different sides and the conditions make it impossible to post guards at the sites, etc. The vast majority have already had some looting begun at them and all will eventually be looted to some degree. Thus, the alternative to excavation is losing the remains forever. Through scientific excavations, we document how the various items fit together and preserve them. Also, we normally work with local people, who want these places excavated to save their cultural heritage. Disrespect would be to allow the sites to be destroyed, which would be against the customs and wishes of the indigenous peoples.

Q. Once excavated, how are the mummies stored?

A. They are kept in museums and labs in cities close to where they were found. We place them in freezers, with temperature and relative humidity controlled. Initially, the freezers are standard ones for foods, as nobody makes frozen-mummy freezers! But for long-term storage and exhibitions, specially built climate-controlled units, with alarms, computer monitoring, etc., are necessary.

Q. Have your experiences with ancient and far-flung faiths affected your own beliefs?

A.  They have led me to be more tolerant and respectful of  different religions and also to try to take the best from them.

Q. What has been your greatest reward?

A.  Having new insights into the past while discovering unique objects. Seeing the positive results of so many years of work, especially the pleasure it has given many of my friends. And seeing how excited children get about the discoveries. I once listed all the projects I wanted to do, and it hit me that I could never do them all, even if I had all the money in the world and lived to be a hundred. But I would still like to write a couple more books, finish my research on sacred mountains in the Himalaya, conduct underwater archaeology in Indonesia, and.…finish this [interview].  

                            Further Resources

Equipment: See attachment below.

J Reinhard,
Sep 10, 2011, 7:56 AM