Quirks & Quarks

Ancient Peruvians sacrificed 140 children by tearing their hearts out

The largest ever child sacrifice may have been to appease the gods over an El Nino driven climate disaster

Largest ritual child killing might have been in response to climate disaster

Victims of a desperate event, a child and baby llama, were part of the sacrificial killing of more than 140 children and over 200 llamas on the north coast of Peru around A.D. 1450. (Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic)

A team of archeologists recently announced the discovery of a grisly sacrificial site on Peru's northern coast, where 140 children and 200 llamas were slaughtered.

The incident happened around A.D. 1450 in what was then the capital of the Chimú empire, and may be the largest mass child sacrifice in history.

"Usually these things didn't involve large numbers like these. It does suggest to me that there was some point where they really were desperate to appease the gods to do something to avert a disaster." -  John Verano

Archeologists Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo (in Peru) and John Verano of Tulane University (in New Orleans) co-led the excavation with grants from National Geographic, which first reported the discovery.

What's most disturbing about the killings were the wounds in the victims' chests, suggesting their hearts had been removed as part of the ritual.

"We could see their chests had been cut open and their ribs had been spread, and the same thing with the llamas," said Verano. "That's when I realized they were intentionally killed. This was some kind of ritual killing."

Preserved in dry sand for more than 500 years, more than a dozen children were revealed over the course of a day by archaeologists. The majority of the ritual victims were between eight and 12 years old when they died. (Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic)

Verano has been doing field work in Peru for 33 years, and has excavated other sacrificial sites before.

What struck him as unusual about this excavation was the size of the sacrifice and the fact that they were all children.

"Usually these things didn't involve large numbers like these," said Verano. "It does suggest to me that there was some point where they really were desperate to appease the gods to do something to avert a disaster."

The most likely trigger, according to Verano, would be an El Niño event. It probably wreaked environmental havoc, disrupting the marine food chain and agriculture in the region.  El Niño frequently affects northern Peru and Ecuador, and brings unusually warm and nutrient-poor water to the coasts.

John Verano is an anthropology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and co-leader of the excavation (http://www.johnverano.com)

"There's a big deposit of dried mud that was wet at the time of the sacrifice," he offered the evidence, "and the only time you get big flows of mud on the north coast is when you get an El Niño event or a tsunami."

Verano pointed out that in the Inca empire, which was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, human sacrifice was rare except in times of crisis, like defeats in battle or the death of an emperor, or at the coronation of a new emperor or cyclical religious ceremonies.

Something similar could have been the case with the Chimú civilization, but given the lack of historical records, he can't pinpoint the cause for sure.

Verano is going back to Peru later this month to investigate further.  He'll be excavating another sacrificial site with similar patterns and in the same region.

"It may be that this region of Huanchaquito, the cliff tops of this area, there were multiple sites. Probably not as big as the one we found, but we're finding additional ones."