Mass Grave of Women, Children Found in Pre-Hispanic City in Peru

Buried in the Chimú Empire capital of Chan Chan, some of the deceased were interred with needles and sewing tools

Workers excavate grave site
Most of the people buried at the site were woman and children. Peruvian Ministry of Culture

Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Chan Chan, which served as the capital of the Chimú Empire in what’s now northern Peru until the 15th century, have discovered a mass grave containing the remains of around 25 people.

Jorge Meneses, an archaeologist at Trujillo National University who is leading the research project, tells the Andina news agency that the team discovered the burial in a raised area of the Great Chimú walled complex.

“Most of them belonged to women under 30 who were buried with objects used in textile activities, [as well as] a couple of children and a couple of teenagers,” he says.

One of the skeletons was apparently buried at the site shortly after death. Other bones were mixed together and bleached by the elements, suggesting they were moved there later, BBC News reports. The remains were wrapped in layers of material, first in a cotton fabric and then in a wrapping made of plant tissue.

Some of the women’s bodies were placed in a seated position with their legs bent and needles, chalk and sewing tools placed beside them. This arrangement may have been a recreation of activities the women engaged in when they were alive, says Peru’s Ministry of Culture in a statement.

Researchers also found dozens of ceramic vessels in the grave. Sinthya Cueva, head of the Chan Chan Archaeological Research Program, tells Adina that the wealth of grave goods suggests the people buried there were elite members of society.

View of mass grave, with blue vessels and skeletons visible
Chan Chan, meaning “resplendent sun” in the Chimú language, was home to around 30,000 people at its height. Peruvian Ministry of Culture

The Chimú Empire flourished along Peru’s northern coast between 900 and 1450 C.E., notes Agence France Presse (AFP). Chan Chan, meaning “resplendent sun” in the Chimú language, was home to around 30,000 people at its height. The city was divided into nine citadels, or complexes, per Unesco. Each of them contained temples, homes, storehouses and cemeteries. Earthen walls decorated with images of humans and animals, as well as abstract designs, marked the citadels’ boundaries.

Industrial areas for weaving and wood and metal working stood outside of the citadels. The Chimú built a complex irrigation system that relied on a 50-mile-long canal to carry water from the Moche and Chicama rivers, supporting agricultural areas surrounding the city.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Chimú fell to the Inca between 1465 and 1470. The Inca appear to have absorbed many of the earlier empire’s practices, including its political systems, class hierarchies, and road engineering and irrigation methods.

In 2011, archaeologists just north of Chan Chan found a huge Chimú burial site known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas. More than 140 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were sacrificed there, along with more than 200 llamas. Researchers deemed the deaths the “largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas—and likely in world history,” as Kristin Romey wrote for National Geographic in 2018.

No evidence suggests that the newly discovered remains belong to victims of human sacrifice, BBC News reports. The researchers plan to conduct tests to determine the individuals’ cause of death.

Chan Chan, which was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986, is also included in the organization’s list of world heritage in danger. Its earthen architecture is vulnerable to extreme weather events, and its ruins face looting and the threat of road construction. Officials have taken action to stabilize and protect the site, but it remains on the list of endangered locales.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.