Posted on April 26, 2018

Ancient Mass Child Sacrifice May Be World’s Largest

Kristin Romey, National Geographic, April 26, 2018

Evidence for the largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas — and likely in world history — has been discovered on Peru’s northern coast, archaeologists tell National Geographic.

More than 140 children and 200 young llamas appear to have been ritually sacrificed in an event that took place some 550 years ago on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in the shadow of what was then the sprawling capital of the Chimú Empire.

Scientific investigations by the international, interdisciplinary team, led by Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo and John Verano of Tulane University, are ongoing. The work is supported by grants from the National Geographic Society.

While incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya, and Inca have been recorded in colonial-era Spanish chronicles and documented in modern scientific excavations, the discovery of a large-scale child sacrifice event in the little-known pre-Columbian Chimú civilization is unprecedented in the Americas — if not in the entire world.

Preserved in dry sand for more than 500 years, more than a dozen children were revealed over the course of a day by archaeologists. The majority of the ritual victims were between eight and 12 years old when they died.


A Stunning Tally, and a Tragic End

The sacrifice site, formally known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, is located on a low bluff just a thousand feet from the sea, amid a growing spread of cinderblock residential compounds in Peru’s northern Huanchaco district. Less than half a mile to the east of the site is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chan Chan, the ancient Chimú administrative center, and beyond its walls, the modern provincial capital of Trujillo.

At its peak, the Chimú Empire controlled a 600-mile-long territory along the Pacific coast and interior valleys from the modern Peru-Ecuador border to Lima.

Once one of the largest cities in the Americas, Chan Chan was the capital city of the ancient Chimú civilization. How long ago did the Chimú people live, and what brought about the fall of their civilization?

Only the Inca commanded a larger empire than the Chimú in pre-Columbian South America, and superior Inca forces put an end to the Chimú Empire around A.D. 1475.


Huanchaquito-Las Llamas (generally referred to by the researchers as “Las Llamas,”) first made headlines in 2011, when the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas were found during an emergency dig directed by study co-author Prieto. {snip}

By the time excavations concluded at Las Llamas in 2016, more than 140 sets of child remains and 200 juvenile llamas had been discovered at the site; rope and textiles found in the burials are radiocarbon dated to between 1400 and 1450.

Many of the children had their faces smeared with a red cinnabar-based pigment during the ceremony before their chests were cut open, most likely to remove their hearts. The sacrificial llamas appear to have met the same fate.


The skeletal remains of both children and animals show evidence of cuts to the sternum as well as rib dislocations, which suggest that the victims’ chests were cut open and pulled apart, perhaps to facilitate the removal of the heart.

The remains of three adults — a man and two women — were found in close proximity of the children and animals. Signs of blunt-force trauma to the head and a lack of grave goods with the adult bodies lead researchers to suspect that they may have played a role in the sacrifice event and were dispatched shortly thereafter.

The 140 sacrificed children ranged in age from about five to 14, with the majority between the ages of eight and 12; most were buried facing west, out to the sea. The llamas were less than 18 months old and generally interred facing east, toward the high peaks of the Andes.

A Scatter of Footprints, Frozen in Time

The investigators believe all of the human and animal victims were ritually killed in a single event, based on evidence from a dried mud layer found in the eastern, least disturbed part of the 7,500-square-foot site. They believe the mud layer once covered the entire sandy dune where the ritual took place, and it was disturbed during the preparation of the burial pits and the subsequent sacrifice event.


Many of the 200 sacrificial llamas are so well preserved that after 500 years, researchers could recover the ropes they were bound with, stomach contents, and plant remains caught in their fur.

Many children show evidence of having their faces smeared with red pigment before death. DNA analysis indicates that both boys and girls were sacrificed.


Both children and llamas were brought to the coast from far-flung corners of the Chimú Empire to be sacrificed, according to preliminary isotopic studies and analysis of skull modification.

An Unprecedented Event?


Until now, the largest mass child sacrifice event for which we have physical evidence is the ritual murder and interment of 42 children at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City).

The discovery of individual child sacrifice victims recovered from Inca mountaintop rituals has also captured the world’s attention.


Analysis of the remains from Las Llamas shows that both children and llamas were killed with consistent, efficient, transverse cuts across the sternum. A lack of hesitant (“false start”) cuts indicates that they were made by one or more trained hands.


Human sacrifice has been practiced in nearly all corners of the globe at various times, and scientists believe that the ritual may have played an important role in the development of complex societies through social stratification and control of populations by elite social classes.


Negotiation With Supernatural Forces

The mass sacrifice of only children and young llamas that took place at Las Llamas, however, appears to be a phenomenon previously unknown in the archaeological record, and it immediately raises the question: What would motivate the Chimú to commit such an act?


Elevated sea temperatures characteristic of El Niño would have disrupted marine fisheries in the area, while coastal flooding could have overwhelmed the Chimú’s extensive infrastructure of agricultural canals.

The Chimú succumbed to the Inca only decades after the sacrifices at Las Llamas.

Haagen Klaus, a professor of anthropology at George Mason University, {snip} suggests that societies along the northern Peruvian coast may have turned to the sacrifice of children when the sacrifice of adults wasn’t enough to fend off the repeated disruptions wrought by El Niño.

“People sacrifice that which is of most and greatest value to them,” he explains. “They may have seen that [adult sacrifice] was ineffective. The rains kept coming. Maybe there was a need for a new type of sacrificial victim.”


Future Histories for Past Victims


Although it is difficult to determine sex based on skeletal remains at such a young age, preliminary DNA analysis indicates that both boys and girls were victims, and isotopic analysis indicates that they were not all drawn from local populations but likely came from different ethnic groups and regions of the Chimú Empire.


Since the discovery at Las Llamas, the research team has discovered archaeological evidence around Huanchaco for similar, contemporaneous mass child-llama sacrifice sites, which are the subject of ongoing scientific investigation with the support of the National Geographic Society.

“Las Llamas is already such a unique site in the world, and it makes you wonder how many other sites like this there may be out there in the area for future research,” says Prieto.

“This just may be the tip of the iceberg.”