More than 140 children may have had hearts removed in ancient sacrifice in Peru

Hundreds of children and llamas sacrificed in a ritual event in 15th century Peru
Mummified children. Credit: John Verano (2019)

Anthropologists have found evidence of a mass ritual killing that involved the deaths of more than 140 children, three adults, and at least 200 young llamas on the northern coast of Peru.

The archaeological site, known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, represents one of the largest known cases of mass child sacrifice ever seen in the Americas.

Gabriel Prieto, a professor of archaeology from the National University of Trujillo who started excavating Huanchaquito-Las Llamas in 2011, said the discovery shocked him and his colleagues.

"In Peru we are familiar with human bones, but in this particular case there were so many skeletons and they were all children," he said. "It was astonishing."

The sacrificial victims ranged in age from 6 to 14, and appear to have been killed in a well-planned and choreographed event on a single, horrific day. Their mummified bones were found carefully arranged with their heads facing the ocean and their feet facing the mountains. Many of their remains were found with the bones of one or two young llamas lying on top of them.

The children, both boys and girls, all appear to have been killed in the same way—with a single horizontal slice across the sternum.

As if all this wasn't gruesome enough, researchers say that many of the children's rib cages appear to have been pried apart. This suggests that their hearts were removed shortly after they died.

"We can't prove it, but certainly in the Mayan world they described the importance of taking out a heart that was still beating," said John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans and one of the leaders of the research, published Wednesday in PLOS One.

According to radiocarbon dating of the excavated skeletons, the sacrificial event took place around 1450, when the complex and hierarchical Chimu empire ruled the region. The empire flourished from the 11th to the 15th century. At its height it stretched along more than 600 miles of coastline, from the present-day border of Peru and Ecuador south to the modern city of Lima.

The Chimu oversaw an agricultural society that relied on a sophisticated network of hydraulic canals to irrigate fields. The capital city Chan Chan, located a few miles from where the city of Trujillo now sits, included palaces and gardens, plazas and temples. It was one of the largest urban settlements in the Americas.

The Huanchaquito-Las Llamas site is about two miles north of Chan Chan, less than a quarter-mile from the ocean. It was discovered in 2011 when residents noticed human and llama bones in eroding sand dunes along newly constructed roads in the area.

Prieto lobbied Peru's Ministry of Culture to conduct an emergency excavation before any more archaeological material was lost, and his request was swiftly granted. Later, he and Verano were able to secure additional funding, including from the National Geographic Society, to go back to the site in 2014 and 2016.

In that first excavation season, Prieto and his team unearthed 43 children and 74 llamas. Almost immediately he knew it was not just a regular burial ground.

The children had been arranged lying on their sides rather than in a seated position, the more traditional burial posture in the Chimu culture. Not one of them was wearing a necklace of shell beads, and there were no ceramic offerings buried along with them. Some of the older children's faces had been stained red with a face-paint made from cinnabar and were buried wearing ceremonial headdresses.

"It was not typical of any burials we know," Verano said.

And then there was that sure-handed cut across the sternum on body after body, including on many of the llamas.

Anthropologists have known for decades that the Chimu occasionally engaged in mass killings. In the 1970s archaeologists working in Chan Chan found the remains of hundreds of young women who were sacrificed to attend to the king after his death. Researchers have also found the bones of 200 victims—including children, adults and the elderly—who were executed by Chimu warriors sometime around 1300.

But the discovery of a massive ritual sacrifice of children was something new.

Melissa Murphy, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming who was not involved in the new work, said that while other researchers had found evidence of child sacrifice and mass killings in the region, the sheer size of this event and the fatal wounds set it apart.

Hundreds of children and llamas sacrificed in a ritual event in 15th century Peru
Mummified children. Credit: John Verano (2019)

"This finding is unique for its scale, for the different technique, and for the Chimu," she said.

Anthropologists don't know much about the Chimu belief system. There is no written record of their religion, and because most of their art is symbolic rather than representational, it provides only a few hints about their religious practices. There are a few tapestries that depict mass killings, but these appear to show prisoners of war, not children.

Still, the authors of the PLOS One report say that a clue to what might have precipitated the bloody event at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas lies in the site itself.

The researchers note that the children and llamas were buried in a thick layer of mud that lay on top of the sand. This suggests that the sacrifice occurred after heavy rains caused flooding and mudslides in the area. Perhaps this epic sacrifice was designed to stop the rains.

The northern coast of Peru is generally dry and arid, but occasionally El Nino conditions bring heavy rains and flooding to the area. This shift could have caused catastrophic damage to the Chimu food supply.

"We think that a massive rain was destroying the economy and the political structure of the Chimu and the sacrifice was their reaction," Prieto said. "We'll never know the true meaning of this sacrifice, but our interpretation was they felt like they were contributing something to solve the problem by giving up their most valuable resource—the life of their children."

Haagen Klaus, an anthropologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who was not involved in the work, said he had little doubt that the sacrifice was a response to the rains.

"When it rains in the north coast of Peru it is almost like the world is upside down," he said. "Flooding would cause the displacement of people and the disruption of economic systems."

His own research into ritual sacrifice suggests that it is often performed as a way to negotiate with entities that are believed to control natural events.

"In these societies it was the ancestors who controlled water, and in this part of the world water is life," he said. "An offering that will appease the ancestors may have been seen as necessary to bring the world back into balance."

The researchers have determined that the children were all in good health at the time of their death, and that they likely came from a range of geographic and ethnic communities in the Chimu empire.

By looking to other ancient cultures that practiced child sacrifice, like the Aztecs, Prieto concludes that the children were likely treated especially well in the months leading up to their deaths.

"We know that in Mexico children were prepared for at least six months, given special meals and foods, as well as rehearsals as to how they should behave at the event," he said.

Prieto thinks the three adults found on the site may have been tasked with taking care of the children ahead of the sacrifice.

The adults included two women and one man. Unlike the kids, their sternums had not been sliced, and their ribs had not been spread. One of the women appears to have died due to blunt force trauma to the back of her head. The other woman suffered a blow to the front of her head, but it is not clear that it killed her. The authors say that the man's ribs were broken, but that it is possible it happened after his death.

"I believe these two women and the man were part of a group that was babysitting the kids, and were buried with them at some point," Prieto said. "We didn't say that in the paper, but my feeling is that they were so closely related to the children that the organizers of the ceremony decided—if they go, you go too."

Verano said there is still more work to be done at the site. He, Prieto and their collaborators plan to do further analysis on the skeletons, hoping to reveal more about who these children were—what geographic regions they came from, what they ate, and what ethnic communities they represented.

At the same time, Prieto has started excavating another site at nearby Pampa La Cruz, where he has already found 132 kids and 250 llamas. It's a grisly find that leads to an even more grisly conclusion about the mass ritual killing of children at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas.

This happened more than once.

Explore further

Archaeologists find ancient mass child sacrifice in Peru

More information: Prieto G, Verano JW, Goepfert N, Kennett D, Quilter J, LeBlanc S, et al. (2019) A mass sacrifice of children and camelids at the Huanchaquito-Las Llamas site, Moche Valley, Peru. PLoS ONE 14(3): e0211691.
Journal information: PLoS ONE

©2019 Los Angeles Times
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Citation: More than 140 children may have had hearts removed in ancient sacrifice in Peru (2019, March 6) retrieved 20 October 2019 from
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User comments

Mar 06, 2019
Who are most sadistic, those who killed the children, or to separated them from their parents, raped them, segregated them, etc?

Because there are headlines around today's world like "thousands of children separated from their parents by the US government", "multiples accusations of sexual assault by ICE", etc. Just yesterday was a news paper posted on this site saying that almost half of US population knows someone who is in prison, I bet many of those in prison are parents, and the great majority are imprisioned by "crimes" fabricated by lawyers to put people in prison, those "crimes" are not based on real damage to society e.g., smoking cannabis.

Somewhere Chomsky commented that the US government learned long ago how destructive was to separate parents from their children, and that is why in Vietnam, for example, there were vast campaigns by the US government to separate Vietnamise families from their fathers.

Mar 06, 2019
I bet many of those in prison are parents, and the great majority are imprisioned by "crimes" fabricated by lawyers to put people in prison, those "crimes" are not based on real damage to society e.g., smoking cannabis
So youre saying then that US citizens who commit crimes should also be imprisoned with their children?

"Any alien who (1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or (3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact, shall, for the first commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both, and, for a subsequent commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both."

Mar 06, 2019
Re the article, mass sacrifice of children and women was a way of slowing population growth. The more progressive religions realized that it was more advantageous to let their kids grow up to fight and die on battlefields and in the streets.

"3 Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one's youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them." psm127

-This is referred to as 'outgrowing and overwhelming'. Teddy roosevelt called it 'warfare of the cradle'. The religions that werent as skilled in this process are no longer with us.

Mar 06, 2019
Why is sacrifice assumed rather than warfare or execution? Wasn't there a civil war on in the early 1500s after Spain introduced smallpox and destabilized the Incan civilization? Maybe Francisco Pizarro's forces were behind these slayings rather than the possibly-defamatory accusations of human sacrifice? If the Spaniards were willing to create an apocalypse with biological warfare, it seems naive to think they wouldn't brutally murder children and llama too!

Mar 06, 2019
The 140 children were late stage abortions

Mar 07, 2019
Build a Wall!

Mar 07, 2019
Tower of human skulls found in Mexico City dig casts light on Aztec sacrifices
Archaeologists find more than 650 skulls near site of Templo Mayor
With scant archeological evidence, it is hard to know how many Aztecs died under the sacrificial knife. Many reputable scholars today put the number between 20,000 and 250,000 per year for the whole Aztec Empire. All Aztecs cities contained temples dedicated to their gods and all of them saw human sacrifices.

Mar 07, 2019
With scant archeological evidence, it is hard to know how many Aztecs died under the sacrificial knife. Many reputable scholars today put the number between 20,000 and 250,000 per year for the whole Aztec Empire. All Aztecs cities contained temples dedicated to their gods and all of them saw human sacrifices
That's nothing. Prenatal infanticide preempts almost 1/3 of all births in the US every year. That's almost a million births per year or 62M total since 1973.
And the reason in either case is the same - overpopulation.

Contraception, family planning, and industrial-scale ABORTION give women the 'freedom to choose' whether to send their sons and daughters off to war or not. It gives them the freedom from having to stand in bread lines or living in the street.

Mar 08, 2019
Leftwing morons and Marxist anthropologists are on a crusade using illogic, false equivalencies and historical revisionism to remanufacture the reality of backward, savage ancients, all the way from Neanderthals to Native Americans. These people are a disgrace to the scientific community, they betray the rules of science.

Mar 11, 2019
otto, you seem knowledgeable about historical events, Three questions for you

1) At the time period of the New World sacrificial religions?
How many people, especially women were being tortured & executed, often burned alive in Europe?

2) Is it true, that the last two official, legal executions for witchcraft in Western Europe, were in Protestant Scotland?
& a Protestant canton of Switzerland?

3) Those sanctimonious crocodile tears of horror at women who accept their Doctor's advice to have an abortion? The denialists cries of outrage would be a smidgen less hypocrisy, if...
If they supported preventive methods of birth control?

If they permitted education in reproduction & hygiene for pubescent children.
Including that the child has a right to say no when a male demands sex from them?

If the deniers allow public access to their own medical records?
Cause who knows what monstrosity is being hidden from Public censure?

Mar 11, 2019
oh deer ponyboy, tsk, tsk, tsk
your goebbels level rants may be believable to the stupid.
& you can try to confuse the rest of us temporarily?
Until you expose yourself as a card-carrying looneytick of the atomic priesthood cult of death.
Making all that effort to poison the entire Biosphere to purge it of all life.

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