Mass Sacrifice in Peru

In the last decade, a number of sites from the North coast of Peru have revealed mass sacrifice burial pits dating around 1000 CE. These are attributed to the Sican culture, a group that reached its peak between 900 and 1100 CE following the Moche culture. There is little known about the group currently, due to a lack of artifacts and imagery, but this is quickly changing. Excavations by Hagan Laus, José Pinilla and Carlos Elera at Huaca Las Ventanas have revealed a large Middle Sican pyramid and a mass burial pit. The interpretation of the site is that the pyramid is a funeral monument to an elite royal with a mass sacrifice of humans in his honor.

Mass sacrifice burial pit, National Geographic

The excavation uncovered a 50 by 50 foot burial pit next to the pyramid. They uncovered more than 100 individuals. Almost all of them are males, with the exception of two children, each found with an adult woman. The bodies appear to have been discarded without any clear patterns in their positioning. Some appear to have been carefully placed into the pit with arms folded or tightly flexed on their sides, and others are found splayed on the front as if dumped into the pit. A number of the bodies are headless, and 20 skulls were found buried separately to the side, however archaeologists are unsure whether the two are directly connected. Artifacts found in the pit are primarily ceramic heads of humans, deities or animals, and intentionally broken ceramic pots. Based on their excavation, archaeologists argue that the burial pit was created in three events, two of which were primary burial and the third which involved the moving of bones and pots. They argue that most likely this site represents a sacrificial offering to a deceased elite individual.

Previous work done on Sican cultural sites have shown that there is strong differentiation between elites and commoners, and that sacrifice is common despite a lack of artifacts or images. Klaus (2011) argues that burials found at Huaca Loro are clear evidence of sacrifice similar to Huaca Las Ventanas. There are 24 burials of females from 18 to 25 years, which is not indicative of a normal death curve. Also, there is clear iconography on the pyramid showing sacrificial processions of young females. Given the lack of clear disease or cause of death and the iconography, Klaus (2011) argues that this represents sacrifice similar to that at Huaca Las Ventanas. Shimada et al. (2004) conducted work on a number of elite burial shafts and non-elite burials, including the Huaca Loro site, and disagrees with the conclusion of sacrifice. The initial interpretation of the large mass female burials around the male elite was that this was a sign of sacrifice. The females were carefully placed in specific locations with specific artifacts. Although the meaning of the differentiation is unknown, there is clear separation of the females by ethnic groups as evidenced by DNA studies. However, they found no clear evidence of it. Shimada et al. (2004) argue instead that it is likely that burial was delayed in order to allow for mass burials of young females. This is evidenced by differences in the burial forms with some mummified and others clearly reburied as seen by the lack of a complete skeletal assemblage.

There are clear differences between the Huaca Las Ventanas and the Huaca Loro sites. The Ventanas site has primarily males and the burials were not carefully placed, whereas the Loro site is primarily females who have been carefully placed around the elite burial. It is therefore possible that the Ventanas represents a sacrifice and Loro does not. In order to fully understand the Huaca Las Ventanas assemblage, we need more evidence. A conclusion of sacrifice requires strong iconography, osteological evidence as well as tight chronological control. From pictures alone, we can see that the burial pit has bodies at a number of different layers, which may be a sign that this pit was accumulated over a large period of time rather than single event. We also need to know if there is evidence of death and evidence of curation. If all individuals were killed in a similar fashion it may be a sign of sacrifice. Evidence of curation, such as missing bones or shine from handling, however may show that like Huaca Loro the individuals were reburied for the elite. It will be interesting to see how these sites compare once a full analysis is done.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgShimada, I., Shinoda, K., Farnum, J., Corruccini, R., & Watanabe, H. (2004). An Integrated Analysis of Pre‐Hispanic Mortuary Practices: A Middle Sican Case Study Current Anthropology, 45 (3), 369-402 DOI: 10.1086/382249

Roach, John 2011. Mysterious Mass Sacrifice Found Near Ancient Peru Pyramid. National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/12/111228-mass-sacrifice-beer-headless-sican-pyramid-tomb-ancient-science/

Klaus, Haagen 2011. Bodies and Blood: Ritual Killing in Middle Sican Culture. SAA 2011 Presentation. http://uvu.academia.edu/HaagenKlaus/Papers/562295/Bodies_and_Blood_Ritual_Killing_in_Middle_Sican_Society_-_Haagen_Klaus_and_Izumi_Shimada

One response to “Mass Sacrifice in Peru

  1. Pingback: Congrats, your family won a slot in the sacrifice tonight! « Eric Timar's Vault·

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