Anthropologists in Peru have unearthed the largest known child sacrifice

550 years ago, the Chimu people may have killed 140 children to appease their gods

fossilized child in Peru mass sacrifice site

SACRIFICIAL STARE  Discoveries at the site of the largest known mass sacrifice of children included this shroud-covered youngster lying next to a llama and a rope that was used to lead the llama. The Peruvian site dates to around 1450.

Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic

A hellishly unprecedented scene — what anthropologists suspect is the largest known child sacrifice — has been unearthed on a bluff overlooking Peru’s northern shoreline.

Around 550 years ago, members of the Chimú empire ritually killed and buried at least 140 children, ages 5 to 14, and 200 young llamas, says a team led by Gabriel Prieto of the National University of Trujillo in Peru and John Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans.

“There are no other examples of child sacrifices anywhere in the world that compare to the magnitude of this Chimú event,” Verano says. The discovery was announced April 26 by National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

Except for a few incomplete skeletons, excavated children and llamas displayed cuts on their breast bones and dislocated ribs indicating that their chests had been sliced open. Three adults buried nearby on the bluff, including two women with violent head wounds, may have participated in the sacrifice.

Radiocarbon dating, mainly of ropes left around the llamas’ necks, puts the event at around 1450, shortly before the Inca conquered the Chimú in 1470.

A dried mud layer covering some of the sandy graves possibly resulted from flooding caused by massive rains. Agricultural crises triggered by repeated flooding might have led Chimú leaders to sacrifice children to their gods, Verano suggests.

skeletons of children's bodies at Peruvian site
KILLING PLEA Children’s bodies lay in sandy pits at a Peruvian site where researchers say 140 youngsters were ritually sacrificed around 550 years ago, possibly to appease gods thought to be responsible for devastating floods. Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic

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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