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Around 500 years ago 137 children were sacrificed with their hearts removed

In Peru, 137 child skeletons and the remains of 200 animals have been discovered, believed to have been a sacrificial ritual. Credit: John Verano

About five hundred years ago slightly less than 140 children and 200 animals were victims of one of the biggest sacrifices ever recorded.  However the reasons behind this mass sacrifice remain unknown.  Researchers believe they have an idea. 

The excavation site is only a few kilometres from the town of Trujillo, in the north of current day Peru. Around 500 to 550 years ago, 137 children (although probably more) and about 200 animals, predominantly lamas were sacrificed and then buried side by side in cotton shrouds with their chest open.  Researchers believe that this was probably so that their hearts could be cut out from their chest.   This mass sacrificed could have been to appease the angers of God.

There is doubt about the sacrificial nature of these deaths,” explains Nicolas Goepfert a researcher for CNRS and co author of the study.  “All these children have died in a relatively close time period.  Certainly in less than a year and perhaps within a few days of one another.”

Gabriel Prieto, assistant archaeology professor at the National University of Trujillo (Peru)  become aware of this sacrificial site in 2011 after a man approached him while he was working on site.  The places here are very dry like the desert which therefore encourages the natural mummification of bodies.  Hair, skin and even the fur coats of some animals have been found buried under ground.

Two mummified children in the sand. Credits : John Verano

Period marked by heavy rainfall

The excavation site is about 2 km from the ancient city of Chan Chan which was the capital of the Chimús empire. This city is meant to have been home to around 30, 000 inhabitants at the time.   Chimús people ruled the land for about 500 years before the Incas arrived in 1470.  Could conflicts between the two populations explain the sacrifices? Researchers believe this to be unlikely.  Instead they believe the climate to be at fault.  The sacrifice seems to have taken place during a period of heavy rainfall that struck the region probably due to the El Nino volcano phenomenon.

We know that the Chimú culture prospered partly due to it’s intensive agriculture.  A sophisticated system of hydraulic canals watered their crops and fed their livestock.  It is therefore possible that the extreme events of El Niño could have damages crops and flooded the land. As the volcano erupted warm waters of the South Pacific evaporated and then fell as torrential rainfall.

Members of the Chimú society think that for these people a human and animal sacrifice was probably seen as a way to appease the angers of God.  Even today, some communities that live in the high Peruvian plateaus and in Bolivia carry out sacrifices. These people always remove the hearts of sacrificed lamas before burning them.


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