The remains of the largest mass sacrifice of children ever discovered have been revealed.
In a single event that took place around 1450 CE at a site called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas in Peru, 140 boys and girls were ritually slaughtered, probably by having their hearts removed.
Some 200 llamas were also killed at the same time.
The gruesome discovery is detailed in a paper published in the journal PLOS One by researchers led by Gabriel Prieto of Peru’s Universidad Nacional de Trujillo.
The paper describes the results of excavations undertaken at the site between 2011 and 2016. Slowly and carefully, Prieto and colleagues uncovered the remains of the children – which anatomical evidence indicates were all aged between five and 14 – in an area of approximately 700 square metres.
The same area contained the remains of 200 animals, which the scientists tentatively identified as llamas, while conceding that some might have been alpacas. All were juveniles.
Cut marks on the sternums and the displaced ribs on all the skeletons, human and camelid, indicates their chests were cut open, possibly, say the researchers, to facilitate the ritual removal of the heart.
The mass sacrifice was the work of the people of the Chimu state, a sophisticated civilisation that dominated the Peruvian coast between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries.
The child victims, it appears, came from across the region. Their deaths took place less than a kilometre from the ancient Chimu capital, the city of Chan Chan.
“Variability in forms of cranial modification … and stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen suggest that the children were a heterogeneous sample drawn from multiple regions and ethnic groups throughout the Chimu state,” the researchers write.
Despite many stories indicating the contrary, child sacrifice through history is a comparatively rare phenomenon. Archaeological evidence for the practice in the Old World, Prieto and colleagues note, is “less than convincing”, and most New World claims are “ambiguous”.
However, they acknowledge increasing evidence for the practice in the ancient Maya civilisation, which at peak encompassed Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador. Until now, the largest mass sacrifice discovered comprised 42 children in what has become known as the Templo Mayor Offering 48, uncovered in the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan.
The Chimu people, however, took the wholesale sacrifice of the young to another level.
The researchers report that the children and the llamas were buried in four distinct clusters, although why and how the members of each were selected remains unclear.
The bodies of the children were all laid out in one of three burial positions, and “a lack of any associated grave goods suggested that this was not a typical Chimu burial ground”.
The researchers found ample evidence to support the idea that all the killings had a ritual function.
“Children often were buried in groups of three and placed by increasing age from youngest to oldest,” they write.
“Some children received special treatment before being sacrificed. Some had their faces painted with a red cinnabar-based pigment, and others (primarily older children) wore distinctive cotton headdresses.”
In addition, most of them were buried facing the sea, while most of the llamas faced towards mountains.
The big question, of course, is why the slaughter of the innocents took place. Here the researchers can only speculate, but certain evidence may provide important clues.
“The presence of a thick layer of mud on top of the sand in which the children and camelids were buried, as well as the presence of human and animal footprints made while the mud was still wet, suggest that the sacrificial event occurred shortly after heavy rainfall and flooding, in an arid region that receives negligible rainfall under normal conditions,” they write.
Did 140 children die to thanks the gods for bringing rain? Perhaps. Equally, they might have had their hearts ripped out in a desperate plea for the downpour to cease.
Heavy rainfall and flooding, the researchers suggest, “could have impacted the economic, political and ideological stability of one of the most powerful states in the New World during the fifteenth century AD”.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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