The remains of 140 children sacrificed in the 15th century during a mass ritual were exhumed in America, in a region where the pre-Columbian Chimu civilization was present.
140 children and adolescents as well as 200 young lamas were immolated 550 years ago on the Pacific Rim, in the heart of the Chimu empire, an important pre-Columbian civilization (1000 – 1470), which occupied the area prior to the Incas. A ceremony of a scale never described before. “I have studied many cases of prisoners of war sacrifices, or of servants executed with their masters, but I had never seen anything like it!” says John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University.
On April 26, 2018, the National Geographic magazine reported the discovery of what is presented as the largest identified case of child sacrifice.
Called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, the site where small victims are in fact regularly exhumed since 2011 is located near a road, in the middle of an urban area, on a height, about 300 m above sea level, in northern Peru. There, in the province of Trujillo, the radiocarbon dating of these human remains made it possible to place the hecatomb between 1400 and 1450.
“The human skeletons as well as the animals bore traces of cuts in the sternum… indicating the opening of the chest of these children to extract the heart,” said John Verano. These marks prove that it was well a ritual of human sacrifice with cardiectomy — removal of the heart from the rib cage — which was practiced in Huanchaquito in the fifteenth century on children aged 5 to 14 years.
From the first discoveries of 2011, this research undertaken with the participation of French and Peruvian archaeologists had already attracted attention. “The quantity of bodies of children and llamas exhumed was completely new,” says Nicolas Gopfeart, French archaeologist CNRS, who is currently studying another site of the same type. “The camelids were probably killed to “accompany” the children in the afterlife.” Some still wore around the neck the ropes that had been used to drive them. “These practices were known to the Incas, successors of Chimus, or the Mayas and Aztecs, but never so many young people had been sacrificed at one time and on such a scale,” said John Verano.
At its peak, the Chimu Empire, whose capital Chan Chan is 1.5 km from the Huanchaquito site, controlled a territory of nearly a thousand kilometers along the Pacific side. But what could have happened to get these people to perform such a gesture? A large mudslide released during the excavations could provide a clue: torrential rains and severe flooding on the usually arid coastline may be credited with a particularly violent El Nino climate event. In 1982-1983, such an episode produced dramatic effects in northern Peru, where more than 250 cm of rain fell in a few months, destroying everything.
In the 15th century, this type of calamity could be at the origin of havoc in the coastal fishing as much as in the Chimu cultures, pushing the inhabitants of the region to these ends. “In pre-Columbian populations, religion permeated the whole system of thought. There was no difference between natural and supernatural phenomena. For most of these men, nature could be terrifying, and climate disasters synonymous with destruction and death. As much by their immediate ravages as by the famines which followed in these coastal desert areas “, explains the archaeologist Claude Chauchat, specialist of the old population of the north coast of Peru.