The remains of a sacrificed child (left) and llama (right) that were found at the Peruvian site called Las Llamas.
Credit: Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic
More than 550 years ago, in one of history’s largest human sacrifices, about 140 children and 200 llamas were killed at a site in Peru now called Las Llamas, archaeologists have discovered. The reason for the sacrifice? That remains a mystery.
The chests of the buried children, who were between 5 and 14 years old when they were sacrificed, had been cut open. The hearts of at least some of the children were removed, said John Verano, an anthropology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, who co-directs excavations at Las Llamas. He noted that people in Peru and Bolivia still remove the hearts of sacrificed llamas.
Many of the children were also found with red pigment smeared on their faces. As far as the scientists can tell, the children died when their chests were cut open. However, it is possible they were killed first using some other method that hasn’t left any traces on their remains, Verano said.
At the time of the sacrifice, much of Peru was ruled by a people that archaeologists now call the Chimu. These people created sophisticated works of art and built a large city at the Chan Chan site. As far as archaeologists know, the Chimu did not practice slavery, Verano said.
This mass child sacrifice appears to pre-date the conquest of the Chimu by the Inca, which took place around A.D. 1470. If the sacrifice wasn’t related to that takeover, perhaps the Chimu suffered from environmental problems caused by El Niño — a climate cycle that causes warm water to pool offshore of northwestern South America causing changes in global weather patterns — and carried out the sacrifice in hopes that, somehow, it would alleviate the conditions, Verano said.
About 140 child sacrifices have been discovered at the site of Las Llamas in Peru. Their chests were found cut open,
with the hearts of at least some of the children removed. Credit: Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic
The children appear to have been healthy and well-nourished at the time of their death, and there are no signs that they tried to escape the sacrifice, Verano said. Some of the llamas, however, tried to flee. “The llama footprints sometimes suggest this, and they [the llamas] had ropes around their necks to lead/control them,” Verano said.
The children were buried facing the sea, while the llamas were buried facing east toward the Andes Mountains. Why this was done is unclear. “One possibility is that llamas originally came from the highlands, and the Chimu had deities and art that focused on marine themes, like fish and sea birds, so they had the children face the sea,” Verano said.
In addition to the sacrifices recently discovered at Las Llamas, another case of Chimu child sacrifice was found recently at another Peruvian site — Pampa La Cruz, archaeologists reported recently at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Archaeologists are not yet certain how many kids were sacrificed at that site.
The research at Las Llamas is funded by the National Geographic Society and was reported exclusively in National Geographic. The research is being prepared for scientific publication. Gabriel Prieto, a researcher at Universidad Nacional de Trujillo in Peru, is the other co-director of the Las Llamas excavations.
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