Earlier this month, archaeologist revealed a large mass grave containing the remains of children and llamas. The grave was found on the coast of Peru, near the ancient Chimú capital of Chan Chan. The 800 year old grave contains the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas. Archaeologists from the site argue that the children were killed as part of a religious ceremony, and that the llamas may have served as their transport into the afterlife. It is the first ritual of the Chimú to be found outside of the city.
The Chimú culture began around 900 CE when they became distinctive from teh Moche, and existed until 1470 CE when they were conquered by the Incans. They primarily reside within the Moche Valley of Peru, with their capital at Chan Chan. The area which they resided in was along the coast, but very arid which meant that it was perfect for irrigation agriculture. They cultivated beans, sweet potato, papaya, and cotton. Fishing was a primary source of protein, although llama would have supplemented this. However, agriculture was the most important factor in their subsistence, and the improvements in irrigation allowed major expansion of the culture away from the coast. This reliance on a source of food that was highly dependent on rainfall and wells would have meant a primacy put on ritual to prevent agricultural failure. It is therefore possible that the Chimú would have needed major rituals to ensure a good cultivation, however it doesn’t immediately suggest the requirement for sacrifice.
Important to understanding the potential sacrifice is looking at the religion of the Chimú culture. The moon was the greatest deity as it appeared both during the day and at night, controlled the tides, and was believed to control the weather and growth of crops. The sun was actually seen as the destroyer of crops, and a negative deity. Based on art and other graves, archaeologists argue that children were sacrificed to the moon in order to maintain healthy crops.
Archaeologists argue that the offering of the children and llamas was being made to the ocean in order to aid in the supply of water. Often agricultural societies have rituals they do in order to assure a source of water for the upcoming year. The Chimú were known for their agriculture and irrigation techniques, so they would have been highly dependent on water for survival. Children in particular in Chimú were seen as important to ritual because they were liminal between the afterlife and reality. If they were sacrificed, they would become gods. Even today in the Andes, children are thought to have a special connection with the spirit world and are often asked to play music and be present at funerals.
The sea was also a deity which require sacrifice and ritual in order to maintain fishing and prevent drowning. Another sacrifice site found from the Chimú culture revealed the remains of 200 adults who had been blindfolded and had their throats slit. Archaeologists argue that the Chimú likely conquered a neighboring fishing community and sacrificed them to the sea god. Art from the period shows that conquered peoples would be sacrificed as a way of thanking the gods. Textiles reveal throats being slit, and conquered peoples being given to the ocean.
Sacrifice of children is not a conclusion that can be taken lightly. However, given that there are a number of archaeological sites which have evidence of sacrifice within the Chimú, and that even historical texts from the Spanish speak of the Chimú sacrifices of children and those conquered, the conclusion is well supported. In order to aid more in the interpretation, it would be helpful to learn more about the condition of the bodies and demography. By finding out the exact ages, whether they suffered from any diseases, and where they came from using Strontium isotopes, archaeologists can develop a better understanding of what exactly occurred here.
Than 2011. Mass grave of children, llamas, found in dune. National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/09/pictures/110926-child-sacrifice-llamas-science-peru-chimu-inca-burials/#/children-camelids-sacrificed-peru-child_40807_600x450.jpg
Young 2002. Mass human sacrifice unearthed in Peru. New Scientist. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2885-mass-human-sacrifice-unearthed-in-peru.html