The remains of dozens of child sacrifice victims have been discovered in Peru, and many more are likely to be found, archaeologists say.
The skeletons show evidence that the children’s hearts were removed, said Gabriel Prieto, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Florida who is directing excavations at Pampa La Cruz, the site near Huachaco where the remains were found.
All 76 skeletons had a “transverse clear cut across the sternum,” Prieto said, suggesting they “probably opened the ribcage and then probably removed the heart.”
“They were buried in an extended position, with the feet facing east,” Prieto told Live Science in an email. “They were buried on top of an artificial mound.” It is not clear why the sacrifices were located in this position in this place. “We thought the area, and particularly the mound, was free of Chimu child sacrifices, but we found otherwise,” Prieto said.
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Excavations have been underway at Pampa La Cruz for several years. So far, 323 child sacrifice victims and one more have been found at the site 137 children and three adults sacrificial victims were found at a nearby site called Las Llamas. These remains also show that the children’s hearts had been removed.
Based on the archaeological findings found so far, there are likely many more child sacrifices waiting to be discovered near Huanchaco, Prieto said. “It could be more [than] 1,000 victims, as crazy as it sounds,” he said.
Radiocarbon dating must be done on the 76 newly discovered skeletons, but previously found victims at Pampa La Cruz dating to between 1100 and 1200 AD, Prieto said. Around this time, the Chimu people, known for their excellent metalwork and the city of Chan Chan, flourished in the area.
Why the Chimu would have engaged in child sacrifice in this area on such a large scale is unclear, Prieto said, but the Chimu also built an artificial irrigation system and new agricultural fields nearby, and some of the sacrifices may have been to ” sanctify “this agricultural system.
The people who lived in Huanchaco during the first millennium AD. they also performed human sacrifices in the area, said Richard Sutter, chair of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, who is part of the team working on Huanchaco. That means Chimu may have had a long-standing practice in the area, Sutter said in an email.
Why were children sacrificed?
Scholars not involved in the excavations told Live Science that the findings at Huanchaco are significant. While other cases of child sacrifice are known from the Andean region, “what is striking here is of course the scale,” Peter Eeckhout, a professor of pre-Columbian art and archeology at the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, he told Live Science in an email.
Why the child sacrifices took place is difficult to discern, Eeckhout said, noting that writing was not used in Peru at this time and therefore there are no written records detailing the deaths of the youngsters. Climate problems or environmental changes that may have disrupted agriculture in the region could have played a role in the sacrifice, Eeckhout said.
“It’s an amazing site with the potential to help us understand much better what was happening right now in prehistory,” Catherine Gaither, an independent bioarchaeologist, told Live Science in an email. “I think the reason for the sacrifices was somehow related to a cultural response to environmental changes that caused major cultural upheavals. There may have been correlations with environmental events like an El Niño, for example,” a climate cycle in which warm water in The Pacific Ocean is shifting closer to South America causing changes in the weather, he said.
The team is requesting permission from Peru’s Ministry of Culture to take some samples abroad so the samples can be tested to establish more accurate dates.