Sacrifice Based On Settlement and Subsistence

Frozen Sacrificed Incan Child Mummy from Argentina, via National Geographic

Frozen Sacrificed Incan Child Mummy from Argentina, via National Geographic

Sacrifice is a delicate subject. It can be voluntary or forced, but interpreting who these people were without text can be extremely difficult. When any hint of sacrifice is found at an archaeological site, it is often sensationalized. Sacrifice is actually defined as the making of a sacred act, coming from the latin sacer for sacred and facere meaning to make. Schwartz (2012) argues that “sacrifice is generally understood to be a religious activity… involving the recognition of and interaction with supernatural entities”. It is therefore distinct from secular killing, warfare, murder and suicide. Sacrifice of both humans and animals has been an important part of ritual and ceremonial practices across the world and throughout time, preserved directly in the skeletal remains of the sacrificed deceased. There cannot be a single explanation for why or who is chosen to be sacrificed- it is a regionally and historically specific phenomenon. In order to interpret each specific case, the context, individuals involved, and religious implications must be analyzed. Bioarchaeology offers a way to directly examine the people who were sacrificed and gain insight into the practice.

A new study by Turner et al. (2013) examines sacrificial victims from Andean South America, specifically from the site of Chotuna-Chornancap in the Lambayeque Valley region of northern coastal Peru. They hope to assess the settlement and subsistence patterns of the sacrificial victims. They identified three major problems faced by researchers interpreting sacrificial remains from the Andes: identification of injury and cause of death, treatment of victims and ritual program prior to sacrifice, and the origin and identity of those victims. It is this final issue that this study will address through the use of stable isotope analysis. The Incan occupation of this site from 1470–1532 CE is unique in that it involves 33 subadults and adult females in with atypical local, regional, and diachronic patterns. In order to better understand these patterns, they hope to address dietary habits and origins of the victims to better interpret their identities.

Sacrificial Victim from Chotuna-Chornancap

Sacrificial Victim from Chotuna-Chornancap

At the site of Chotuna, there were four different events of sacrifice that appear archaeologically, and are from different sub-periods. Human sacrifice in this region is primarily done through deep and repetitive mutilation of the victim’s anterior throat, which is linked to blood sacrifice. In skeletal remains this can be seen through perimortem blunt force cranial trauma, and a variety of post-mortem treatments such as decapitation, disarticulation, defleshing, and ritual display. The individuals were buried in adobe chambers that were part of the pyramid Huaca de los Sacrificios. The chambers were reopened and additional individuals were added over time. The sample consists of 33 individuals excavated from these chambers. Demographic study of the remains found that the sacrificial victims were primarily subadults and adult females. Perimortem trauma consists of injuries produced by throat slitting, chest opening and heart ablation. The analysis of the burials indicates that the bodies were partially decomposed prior to internment. Overall, the sample consists of healthy individuals, with frequent childhood metabolic stress due seen as anemia and enamel defects indicative of a diet rich in cariogenic cultigens. These patterns point to these individuals being of non-elite or common status.

Turner et al. (2013) propose that these sacrificial killings were done as part of a strategy to maintain government control. They occurred during a period of Inca imperial rule over the area, and this involved radical change in organization and direct presence of political figures. The site under investigation would have been an important node of control, and sacrifice may have been a way of reasserting this. They propose that sacrifice victims would therefore be be taken from varying areas in this region as a means of control, but would be given the standard Incan diet upon being taken. Both hair and bone was used to test stable isotope ratios, with bone providing more information about earlier life and hair more recent. Stable isotope analysis of this would therefore be a narrow range of variation for diet based on the ratios of N15 and C13 isotopes, and a wide range of variation for origin based on O18 isotope ratios. Their analysis supported the first hypothesis, finding that they all had a fairly consistent diet in the months leading up to their deaths, primarily based on marine resources. However, analysis of diet based on bone suggests more variation than hair. The O18 ratio data does not support the hypothesis that they were immigrants. The narrow range of ratios suggests a local origin, though they may have been born in another region.

These stable isotope ratio patterns do not match studies that have been done of traditional Inca sacrifices. They conclude that it is less likely due to Incan desire for control, and more likely the continuation of a local tradition. Other studies have shown that the Inca sought to dominate but not assimilate. Therefore, conquered peoples were allowed to continue their own practices under Incan rule. There study adds a new context of sacrifice to the growing knowledge of this practice in the Andes. What is important, it that it shows regional variation of a practice, even when there is a unified government.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgTurner, B., Klaus, H., Livengood, S., Brown, L., Saldaña, F., & Wester, C. (2013). The variable roads to sacrifice: Isotopic investigations of human remains from Chotuna-Huaca de los Sacrificios, Lambayeque, Peru American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22238

Schwartz, 2012. Introduction: Archaeology and Sacrifice. In Sacred killing : the archaeology of sacrifce in the ancient Near East.

7 responses to “Sacrifice Based On Settlement and Subsistence

    • Well, I think given the location of the burials, the trauma patterns, and the fact that this is well-documented throughout the region points fairly strongly to sacrifice. I guess if I were going to propose a differential diagnosis of the situation I’d say that this could be ritual burials of another nature. War or politics is less likely a potential reason due to the demographic structure of this group. Maybe if women or children were killed in raids they could be buried in special locations- again though it would question why they had similar trauma patterns.

      Thoughts from other readers of what this sample could mean?

  1. I am confused with regard to your descriptions of the trauma patterns. How would “throat slitting” lead to blunt force cranial injuries. In addition, what exactly is “repetitive mutilation of the victim’s anterior throat”? I would think that one quick throat slit with a sharp tool would do the trick rather than just sitting there and hacking at a person’s neck. Furthermore, I would think that one could strategically slit a throat in such as way as to never directly contact any bone at all–as in coming at the arteries from the side thus missing the cervical vertebrae.

  2. Turner et al hypothesised that these sacrifices were about asserting Inca control but their analysis didn’t support this idea and they suggested instead that sacrifices were a continuation of a pre-existing local tradition.

    There’s considerable evidence from the pre-Inca history that this was especially focused on attempts to influence the gods to control climate fluctuations and change. The ‘Pacific (or Southern) Oscillation’, more commonly known to many as El Niño, is a periodic fluctuation in surface water temperature off the coast of Peru that can cause droughts or flooding inland. The Peruvian Andes is profoundly affected.

    Jago Cooper, Curator of the Americas at the British Museum has just finished a four part TV documentary on the Lost Kingdoms of South America which touched on this.

    • yes ….. I saw this series … human culture has always and continues to be influenced by the environment … it’s influence has predicated many changes over the past two decades with more happening over the next … environment is causing a major shift in technology and agriculture, planet wide .. just as well we don’t have to influence the gods anymore.

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