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article imageLargest mass child sacrifice event may be tied to El Nino

By Karen Graham     Apr 27, 2018 in Science
Around 550 years ago, members of the Chimu empire, whose lands encompassed a stretch of desert coast in northern Peru, gathered more than 140 children and 200 baby llamas on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and slaughtered them all.
An accidental discovery of skeletal remains in 2011 on a site formerly known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas was the precursor to an archaeological excavation that began in 2014.
The delay between the initial discovery and actual examination of the site was held up until the international, interdisciplinary team, led by Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo and John Verano of Tulane University, were able to get sufficient funding for. a proper excavation.
During three years of careful excavation, the archaeologists found that over 140 children, between the ages of 5 and 14 years of age, along with 200 young llamas were ritually sacrificed and buried on a bluff overlooking Peru’s northern shoreline, in the shadow of what was then the capital city of Chan Chan, a large adobe city in the Moche Valley of present-day Trujillo, Peru.
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GABRIEL PRIETO/National Geographic
“There are no other examples of child sacrifices anywhere in the world that compares to the magnitude of this Chimú event,” Verano says. "I, for one, never expected it, and I don't think anyone else would have, either." Verano is a physical anthropologist who has worked in the region for more than three decades.
Although the study has yet to be published, the researchers involved explained their work in a National Geographic exclusive published on Thursday, April 26.
The Chimu Culture of Peru
The size of the child sacrifice event dwarfs the ritual killings of 42 children previously uncovered in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, points out National Geographic, and it must have been very gruesome. Based on examination of the skeletal remains of the children and animals, all had their chests cut open, possibly as a means of getting at the heart.
Interestingly, three adult skeletons, that included two women were found on the bluff nearby. They had all apparently died of violent head wounds, and it is surmised they may have participated in the sacrifices. Radiocarbon dating of ropes left around many of the llama's necks dates the event to 1450 AD, about 20 years before the Chimu empire was conquered by the Incan empire.
Chan Chan  the capial of the Chimu Empire in what is now   Trujillo  Peru.
Chan Chan, the capial of the Chimu Empire in what is now Trujillo, Peru.
Håkan Svensson
The sacrificial site overlooking the ocean
To understand a bit more about what happened 550 years ago, we have to go back in time to examine what we do know about the Chimu people. Their culture arose about 900 AD, and the region they claimed for their own while a desert area, had rivers that carved fertile valley plains which were flat and well-suited for irrigation.
The Chimu also depended on the Pacific Ocean for shellfish and other marine creatures for food. So you could say their economy centered around agriculture and fishing.
The Chimu worshipped the moon, which they believed was more powerful than the sun because it can be seen both at night and in the daytime. Ritual offerings were an important part of their religious beliefs. The most common object used for offerings was the shell of the Spondylus shellfish, which resides only in the warm coastal waters off present-day Ecuador.
The Spondylus shellfish was associated with the sea, good crops, and the weather, and were so highly valued the Chimu people traded pottery and textiles for them. They were considered to play a key role in the economic and political dealing of the empire.
Spondylus (Spiny Oysters) shells at Savannah Botanical Gardens exhibit.  Savannah  GA
Spondylus (Spiny Oysters) shells at Savannah Botanical Gardens exhibit. Savannah, GA
That is not to say that sometimes birds or other animals, and even young children weren't sacrificed to the Moon. Families believed their child would become deified and they were usually sacrificed around the age of five.
At the excavation site, the children were found to be facing west, toward the ocean, while the young llamas were facing east, toward the Andes Mountains. According to National Geographic, "The investigators believe all of the human and animal victims were ritually killed in a single event, based on evidence from a dried mud layer found in the eastern, least disturbed part of the 7,500-square-foot site."
The team also believes the mud layer once covered the entire sand dune and was disturbed when the site was being prepared for the burial of the victims. Adult footprints, children's and llama footprints have been documented showing that a group of children and llamas was led to the site from the north and the south edges of the bluff, meeting in the center of the site, where they would have been sacrificed and buried.
The damage caused by flash floods in Huachipa district  east of Lima  Peru on March 19  2017
The damage caused by flash floods in Huachipa district, east of Lima, Peru on March 19, 2017
Ernesto BENAVIDES, AFP/File
Why did this horrendous event happen?
Human sacrifice has taken place in every corner of the world at one time or another in our history, although the mass sacrifice of children is very rare, actually almost unheard of to most scientists.
Most societal models that look at human sacrifice, however, are based on the ritual killing of adults, says Joseph Watts, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
"I think it's definitely harder to explain child sacrifice," he says, then pauses. "Also, at a personal level."
So this sacrificial event raises a big question - What could have motivated the Chimú to commit such an act? Archaeologists are unclear as to what was the reason these ancient people sacrificed their most beloved possession - their children. And the young llamas? Being an agricultural economy that depended on llamas for meat and the wool they made their clothing with, suggests the animals were also highly valued.
Haagen Klaus, a professor of anthropology at George Mason University, who was not associated with the research, said the point of a sacrifice is to give up something of importance or value. He suggests that when adult sacrifices did not bring the desired outcome, out of desperation the people may have turned to their most precious belongings; their children.
About 200 18-month old llamas were also sacrificed with the children.
About 200 18-month old llamas were also sacrificed with the children.
Luc Viatour
As for the llamas - Verano explained that these are an extremely important animal in both ancient and present cultures in Peru and Bolivia. “After humans, llamas were considered to be the most valuable offerings to the gods,” said Verano.
Based on the layer of mud at the archaeological site, the scientists say this suggests the area was experiencing torrential rains related to El Nino at the time of the sacrifice between 1400 and 1450. Since elevated sea temperatures and coastal flooding linked to El Nino could've affected both fishing and agriculture, archaeologists suspect the Chimu got desperate.
And the event was indeed a ritual sacrifice. The skulls—marked with a red ceremonial pigment, per the Washington Post—indicate victims came from across Chimu's territory. We are left to wonder if extreme weather forced the Chimu to sacrifice their children to get it to stop.
More about child sacrifice, Peru, Chimu empire, El Nino, 140 children
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