Nicholas St. Fleur, New York Times, March 6, 2019
Last year archaeologists in Peru announced the discovery of a centuries-old ritual massacre, at a site they believed was the largest known case of child sacrifice ever found.
Buried beneath the sands of a 15th-century site called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas were nearly 140 child skeletons, as well as the remains of 200 llamas.
While the reasoning behind the gruesome mass murder of the boys and girls — who were only between the ages of 5 and 14 — cannot be definitively determined, the researchers now say the act was done out of desperation in response to a disastrous climatic event: El Niño.
“What we seem to have at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas is a sacrifice to stop torrential rains, flooding and mudflows,” said John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University and an author of the paper, which was published Wednesday in PLOS One.
The finding provides insight into the rituals of the ancient Chimú civilization that inhabited Peru’s northern coast. It also attempts to piece together the story behind why people murdered these children, presumably by cutting open their chests and ripping out their hearts.
Some bodies had been buried in cloth, some wore cotton headdresses and others had red-cinnabar paint preserved on their skulls. Buried beside many of the victims were young llamas, each less than 18 months old. They too were sacrificed. The team noticed that the children were buried facing west to the coast while the llamas faced east to the Andes Mountains.
A major clue to figuring out why the Chimú sacrificed the children came in the form of a thick mud layer preserved on top of the sand where the victims were buried. Because the area is a desert, the mud layer indicated there was once a period of heavy rain, like that seen during an El Niño, or a natural warming of the Pacific Ocean’s surface waters that has cascading effects on the weather. Such a deluge would have devastated the Chimú state, flooding crops, killing fish and sweeping people away.
Also in this mud layer, the scientists found preserved footsteps of sandaled adults and barefoot children, as well as signs that the llamas were dragged there. The children, it appeared, were marched to the site, which was just on the outskirts of the Chimú capital city, Chan Chan. The killings, the authors suggest, were done at the order of the Chimú state as an appeal to their gods or ancestral spirits to mitigate the rains.