Clues to child sacrifices found in Inca building

Bodies buried with artifacts offer peek at poorly understood practice

The remains of seven children apparently killed in a ritual and buried beneath a 500- to 600-year-old building in Peru’s Cuzco Valley have given scientists new glimpses of the sketchily understood Inca practice of sacrificing select children in elaborate ceremonies.

SACRIFICIAL SEND-OFF Six children killed in a ritual Inca sacrifice between 500 and 600 years ago were buried together, accompanied by gold, silver and shell figurines of men and llamas. G. McEwan/Wagner College

The children were buried at the same time, apparently after having been killed in a sacrificial rite that honored Inca deities and promoted political unity across the far-flung empire, say anthropologist Valerie Andrushko of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and her colleagues.

Chemical analyses of the bones indicate that at least two of the children came from distant parts of the Inca realm, Andrushko’s group reports in a paper published online September 15 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Archaeological evidence of Inca child sacrifices has come mainly from youngsters’ naturally mummified bodies found frozen on several Andean peaks. Human figurines and other valuable objects lay near those bodies.

“It was surprising that figurines and other artifacts found with children buried at this low-altitude site are nearly identical to finds at high-altitude child sacrifices,” Andrushko says.

Items surrounding the remains of six youngsters buried together in the Inca structure included gold and silver female figurines, red shell figurines of females and llamas, fancy pottery and a piece of clothing covered in gilded metal discs.

An additional child interred about 3 meters from the others lay near a silver figurine of a man adorned with a shell headdress and cloth fragments. Miniature gold, silver and shell figurines of men and llamas surrounded the larger figurine.

Accounts of Inca life written by Spanish conquerors described a ritual in which children from throughout the kingdom were selected for sacrifice based on their physical perfection. Those chosen were brought to the capital city of Cuzco for special ceremonies and then escorted to sometimes distant sacrificial sites.

In a 2007 study, isotopic analyses of hair samples from four Inca youths found more than a decade ago on two Andes summits indicated that they had eaten increasing amounts of maize for about four months before death, apparently at mountain way stations.

Such investigations are rare, remarks anthropologist Tamara Bray of Wayne State University in Detroit. “We have so little scientific information about who these children were or where they may have come from,” she says.

The new report focuses on an apparent child sacrifice discovered during a 2004 dig directed by study coauthors Arminda Gibaja of the National Institute of Culture in Cuzco, Peru, and Gordon McEwan of Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. Excavations took place at an Inca site called Choquepukio, located about 30 kilometers east of the Inca capital.

Children buried in the Choquepukio building ranged in age from 3 to 12, based on their tooth development. Not enough skeletal material survived to make sex determinations. The researchers measured ratios of strontium isotopes in children’s teeth to determine if they had grown up locally. Strontium isotopes get absorbed by teeth to varying extents during childhood depending on concentrations of different forms of strontium in local soils and water.

Comparisons to strontium signatures for Inca adults from the Cuzco region indicated that two children definitely had not been raised there. Preliminary strontium data from other Inca sites suggests that one child came from southern Peru and the other from northwestern Bolivia, Andrushko notes.

Further research is needed to establish whether residents of other parts of the Inca realm possessed a strontium signature like that of Cuzco-region natives, she adds.

Her team could not determine how the Choquepukio children died. Spanish accounts described strangulation of sacrificed youngsters. A neck bone called the hyoid often fractures when adults are strangled but rarely fractures in children because it hasn’t fully formed.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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