In Peru, a morbid ritual from at least 500 years ago involved sacrificing 140 children

Credits: National Geographic / Gabriel Prieto

A team of archaeologists have announced a discovery in Peru of the remains of an ancient ritual that took place at least 500 years ago. The bodies of children from the Chimu pre-Columbian civilisation were found, in what could be the greatest mass child sacrifice in history. 

The pre-Columbian burial site known as Las Llamas contains the skeletons of 140 children aged between 5 and 14 years old, with their chests having been opened, probably in order to extract their hearts. They were killed as part of a ritual mass sacrifice, during a ceremony around 550 years ago. Experts suggest that the children were sacrificed due to floods caused by the El Nino weather pattern, which at the time ravaged the Peruvian coastline. The site, located near the current city of Trujillo, also contained the remains of 200 young llamas, apparently sacrificed on the same day.

“They were possibly offering the gods the most important thing they had as a society, and the most important thing is children because they represent the future,” said Gabriel Prieto, an archaeology professor at Peru’s National University of Trujillo. “Llamas were also very important because these people had no other beasts of burden, they were a fundamental part of the economy”, he added. He also noted that all of the corpses had been buried facing the sea. The llamas were all under 18 months old, and were buried towards the east (towards the Andes). Besides bones, the researchers also found footprints which had survived the rain and erosion. The small footprints indicate that the children were marched to their death from Chan Chan, an ancient city located a kilometer away from Las Llamas. Other imprints suggest that the animals resisted being brought to the place of offering.

Several ancient cultures are known to have practiced human sacrifices, including the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas, who conquered the Chimu empire at the end of the 15th century. But mass child sacrifice is something that is very rarely documented.

Researchers are naturally interested in the reason for this sacrifice. The enormous quantity of mud found indicates driving rain which battered the area during the weeks preceding the ritual: a natural phenomenon linked to El Nino. The phenomenon appears to have been provoked by a rise in sea temperatures, and thus a drastic drop in fishing, as well as floods and landslides, also destroying agricultural infrastructure. The Chimu thus probably started by sacrificing adults, as was the custom, to please the gods. But in the face of failure, they next started on children: the people in fact looking to offer what was most precious to them, in exchange for the gods looking on them favourably.