Archaeologists have discovered what might be the world’s largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in a tiny beach town on Peru’s northern coast, reports said.
The remains of more than 140 children — all with their hearts ripped out — and 200 young llamas were discovered at the cliffside historical sacrifice site known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas just steps from residential cinderblock compounds and local eateries, National Geographic reported.
Ropes and textiles from the graves were radiocarbon dated to between 1400 and 1450.
Scientists first caught wind of the remains in 2011, when local residents told archaeologist Gabriel Prieto, a Huanchaquito native, that human bones were showing up in the dunes near their home after the dunes eroded from the wind and the sea.
The area used to be the capital of the Chimu Empire, the second-largest in the history of the ancient Andes between the 12th and 15th centuries before they were conquered by the Incas, according to the Encyclopedia of Ancient History.
Incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya and Inca have been well documented throughout history, but the discovery of such a large-scale child sacrifice event is unprecedented in the Americas, if not the entire world, National Geographic reported.
Even so, the little information scientists have discovered about this case is disturbing.
Children as young as 5 and as old as 14 from across the region came to the seaside cliff, likely at the behest of Chimu leaders, and their hearts were removed from their chests.
Their sternums were cut and their ribs dislocated so their chests could be broken open and pulled apart, likely to facilitate removal of the heart.
Researchers believe the sacrifice may have had to do with the Chimu’s desperate attempts to appease El Niño — a weather cycle occurring every two to seven years that can cause stronger hurricanes, flooding and increased rainfall.
The layer of mud that held fossilized footprints of the children and the llamas suggests there was severe rain and floods on the typically dry coastline, which is often affected by El Niño, the researchers said.
The elevated sea temperatures accompanied by El Niño would have severely disrupted the Chimu way of life, the researchers said. Local fisheries would have been affected and coastal flooding from the rains would have harmed the Chimu’s extensive agricultural canals.
Haagen Klaus from George Mason University, who was not part of the excacation, hypothesized that the Chimu may have turned to sacrificing children to stave off the repeated disruptions brought about by El Niño.
“People sacrifice that which is of most and greatest value to them,” Klaus explained to the National Geographic.
“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.”
He said it’s impossible to know what really happened without a time machine, but the discovery contributes significantly to modern knowledge on ritual violence and variations of human sacrifice in the Andes.
“There’s this idea that ritual killing is contractual, that it’s performed to get something from supernatural deities,” Klaus said.
“But it’s actually a much more complicated attempt at negotiation with those supernatural forces and their manipulation by the living.”
The researchers are now attempting to trace who the children were and where they came from. They’re preparing to publish their findings in a scientific research journal and are expanding their search around Huanchaco after finding evidence of similar mass sacrifice sites from the same time period.
“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,” said Prieto.
“This just may be the tip of the iceberg.”
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