Archaeologists Discover Site of One of History’s Largest-Recorded Incidents of Child Sacrifice

The excavation uncovered the remains of more than 140 children and 200 llamas, who were sacrificed some 550 years ago in Peru’s northern coast

View of Trujillo between mountains and desert In Peru iStock/tbradford

Back in 2011, archaeologists first uncovered evidence of a large-scale human sacrifice that occurred some 550 years ago in Peru. Now the full details of the excavation in Peru’s northern coast, near the modern-day city of Trujillo, have been revealed, Kristin Romey reports in a National Geographic exclusive.

The 7,500-square-foot burial site, known as Huanchaquito-Las Laamas, is believed to have been built by the Chimú empire, Peru’s most important civilization to pre-date the Inca empire.

While the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations are known to have performed human sacrifices, the Huanchaquito-Las Laamas discovery is believed to be one of the largest-recorded incidents of child sacrifice in human history.

According to researchers, more than 140 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were sacrificed at the pre-Hispanic site. Evidence, including damage on their breast bones and dislocated rib cages, suggests that their hearts were ripped out.

The children, many of whom also had red pigment on their faces, may have died when their chests were cut open, but researchers haven’t ruled out that they may have also been killed another way first.

The remains of more than 200 llamas, bearing similar cut marks to those found on the children, were also uncovered at the site.

Tulane University anthropology professor John Verano, one of the members of the interdisciplinary team of researchers at the excavation site, expressed shock at the discovery. "I, for one, never expected it," he tells Romey. " I don't think anyone else would have, either."

Researchers believe the child and animal sacrifices took place at the same time, based on evidence from a dried mud layer.

The remains of three adults were also found at the site near the sacrificed children and llamas. Researchers suspect that the evidence of blunt force trauma to their heads as well as the omission of items buried alongside their bodies, suggests they were involved with the large-scale sacrifice and were killed soon after it was completed.

Researchers say the children and animals may have been sacrificed to bring relief from flooding caused by the El Niño weather.

As The Associated Press reports, children, symbolic of the future, and llamas, a significant part of the society’s economy, would have been considered among the most important offerings to appeal to the gods.

The children were healthy at the time of the sacrifice, and it doesn’t appear that they tried to escape. But the llamas probably did try to get away. "The llama footprints sometimes suggest this, and they [the llamas] had ropes around their necks to lead/control them," Verano tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus.

One thing that isn’t yet clear is why the children were buried facing the sea and the animals were buried facing inland.

Jeffrey Quilter, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, tells the AP that a team of scientists will analyze DNA samples from the skeletal remains to find out if the children were related in some way and which part of the Chimú empire they hailed from.

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