In what is thought to be one of the largest child sacrifices in history, archaeologists working in northern Peru have unearthed the skeletal remains of around 140 children aged between five and 14. Known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, the pre-Columbian burial site, located near the present-day city of Trujillo, dates back more than 550 years.
As its name suggests, the site also housed the remains of over 200 juvenile llamas that were likely sacrificed on the same day. Although experts have not yet been able to ascertain the reason behind this gruesome sacrifice, it is believed that the act bore some ritualistic significance.
According to John Verano, a Professor of Anthropology at the Tulane University in New Orleans, the children’s skeletons retrieved from the 7,500-square-feet Las Llamas site contained lesions on their sternum or breast bones, probably inflicted by a ceremonial knife of some kind.
This, together with the dislocated rib cages, point to the possibility that the act entailed extracting the hearts of the children as a symbol of sacrifice. While most of the children died when their chests were ripped open, researchers are of the opinion that some might have been killed first using a different method that didn’t leave any significant traces on their remains.
The archaeologists overseeing the excavation at Las Llamas also found red pigment smeared on many of the sacrificed children’s faces.
Shedding light on the findings, Gabriel Prieto, an Archaeology Professor at the National University of Trujillo in Peru, who co-led the excavations with Verano added –
They were possibly offering the gods the most important thing they had as a society, and the most important thing is children because they represent the future. Llamas were also very important because these people had no other beasts of burden, they were a fundamental part of the economy.
The mass child sacrifice, according to estimates, dates back to the ancient Chimú empire, which controlled a gigantic 600-mile-long territory along the Pacific coast at its peak. However, given that it predates Chimú’s conquest by the Inca emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui in circa 1470 AD, the act was probably performed to appease the gods after El Nino caused massive floods along the Peruvian coastline.
El Nino, for the uninitiated, is the warm phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It, essentially, refers to the warming of the ocean surface, and the subsequent increase in sea surface temperatures, in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, including the Pacific coast of South America. This, in turn, results in reduced rainfall over western Pacific and cyclone formation over the tropical eastern Pacific region.
Inside The Burial Site Of One Of History’s Largest Child Sacrifices
Supported by fundings from the National Geographic Society, excavation works at the Huanchaquito-Las Llamas site commenced back in 2011. While the first report of the research was published last week by National Geographic, a scientific publication on the findings is currently being prepared.
As per the findings, the sacrificed children were healthy and well-nourished at the time of their death. The archaeologists did not find any signs that the children tried to flee. The llama footprints found at the site suggest that they had ropes around their necks, in order to control their movements.
There were also deeply-embedded skid marks of four-legged creatures, which means that some of the llamas might have attempted to escape.
Incidentally, the children were buried facing the sea, while the llama skeletons were found facing the Andes Mountains towards the east. Although the exact reason for this remains unknown,
“One possibility is that llamas originally came from the highlands, and the Chimú had deities and art that focused on marine themes, like fish and seabirds, so they had the children face the sea,” added Verano.
In addition to the skeletons, the team also uncovered 550-year-old small footprints, which indicate that the children were likely marched to the sacrificial site from Chimú’s city of Chan Chan in Peru.
Based on the presence of a dried mud layer across the eastern part of the site, the investigators concluded that all 140 children and 200 young llamas were sacrificed on the same day. According to them, the mud layer originally covered the entire region and was only distributed during the sacrificial event.
Greater Clarity On The Ritualistic Practices Of The Ancient Americas
A team of scientists, headed by Harvard University’s Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Jeffrey Quilter, will now study DNA samples collected from the children’s remains to determine if they were related. Through the DNA analysis, the team will also be able to figure out which areas of the Chimu empire the sacrificed children and animals came from.
Calling it a “remarkable discovery”, Quilter said that the findings serve as “concrete evidence” that mass child sacrifices existed in ancient Peru. He added –
Reports of very large sacrifices are known from other parts of the world, but it is difficult to know if the numbers are exaggerated or not.
If, however, the observations made by the Las Llamas archaeologists are correct, it could be one of the largest child sacrifices in the history of mankind. The only other case that compares to the newly-uncovered one was found at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in present-day Mexico City, where around 42 children were believed to have been interred.
However, individual child sacrifices and other forms of human sacrifice were quite common among the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. Highlighting the significance of the latest research in the context of the history of Peru, Prieto said –
This site surrounded by houses in a working-class neighborhood can tell us a lot about a macabre event that is perhaps one of the darkest moments in our history. But this is also part of our cultural heritage.
Source/Image Credits: National Geographic