Archaeologists in Peru Make Gruesome Discovery

In the waning days of its civilization, a gathering of Chimú priests oversaw a religious ritual they hoped would stem the endless days of rain and the rising sea levels that threatened their 15th Century society located along the Pacific Ocean in modern day Peru.

Prior rituals involving the sacrifice of adults in order to appease the gods had failed. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

An Unexpected Recourse

For five years an interdisciplinary team, funded by National Geographic, headed up by Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo and John Verano of Tulane University have been slowly peeling back the layers of a mass grave located in the Chimú town of Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, but now known as the Peruvian district of Huanchaco.

It began in 2011 when initial digs uncovered the remains of 42 children (ranging in age of eight to twelve) and 76 llamas after researchers were alerted to the site while exploring a 3,500-year-old temple down the road from the sacrifice site.

At the end of the five years, the sum reached 140 child remains and 200 llamas. The remains of both children and llamas had evidence of cuts to the sternum as well as broken ribs, indicating that the victims’ chests were cut open and pulled apart as part of a sacrificial ceremony.

Based on findings of preserved footprints and evident muddy conditions 550 years ago, it is believed that the ceremony was conducted on a wind and rain whipped bluff, with the killings being carried out by three adults who were then struck in their heads when the task was complete.

The discovery makes the site the “largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas— and likely in world history.”

“I, for one, never expected it,” says Verano, a physical anthropologist who has worked in the region for more than three decades. “And I don’t think anyone else would have, either.”

A Once Mighty Empire

The Chimú Empire, at its height, once reigned over 600 miles of the Pacific coast stretching along the Peru-Ecuador border to Lima. The Incan Empire was the only other South American civilization that was larger.

Around a hundred years before the Conquistadors arrived in South America the Incas conquered Chimú, a people already struggling against other threats.

‘The Little Boy’ and the Children

Child sacrifices have been found all over the world and they all elicit the same question from modern researchers: Why?

Prieto replied, “When people hear about what happened and the scale of it, the first thing they always ask is why.”

The weather may have been a motivating force.

According to National Geographic, the “layer of mud found during excavations may provide a clue, say the researchers, who suggest it was the result of severe rain and flooding on the generally arid coastline, and probably associated with a climate event related to El-Niño.”

Meaning ‘the little boy”, El-Niño was first recorded in the 1600s by Spanish fishermen. It is described as a “large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific…with the appearance of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean.” It can dictate weather patterns in the hemisphere.

Archaeologists have found that at the time of the mass sacrifice, the Chimú Empire was suffering from heavy rains and coastal flooding that were encroaching upon the buildings and canals of the South American people.

Haagen Klaus, a professor of anthropology at George Mason University, remarks that the Chimú were desperate to stem the onslaught from the gods.

“People sacrifice that which is of most and greatest value to them,” he explained, “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.”

The fate of the Chimú make a mockery of that belief.

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