Evidence for the largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas— and likely in world history—has been discovered on Peru’s northern coast, archaeologists tell National Geographic.
More than 140 children and 200 young llamas appear to have been ritually sacrificed in an event that took place some 550 years ago on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in the shadow of what was then the sprawling capital of the Chimú Empire.
Scientific investigations by the international, interdisciplinary team, led by Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo and John Veranoof Tulane University, are ongoing. The work is supported by grants from the National Geographic Society.
While incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya, and Inca have been recorded in colonial-era Spanish chronicles and documented in modern scientific excavations, the discovery of a large-scale child sacrifice event in the little-known pre-Columbian Chimú civilization is unprecedented in the Americas—if not in the entire world.
“I, for one, never expected it,” says Verano, a physical anthropologist who has worked in the region for more than three decades. “And I don’t think anyone else would have, either.”
The researchers are in the process of submitting a report on scientific results of the discovery to a peer-reviewed, scientific journal.
The sacrifice site, formally known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, is located on a low bluff just a thousand feet from the sea, amid a growing spread of cinderblock residential compounds in Peru’s northern Huanchaco district. Less than half a mile to the east of the site is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chan Chan, the ancient Chimú administrative center, and beyond its walls, the modern provincial capital of Trujillo.
At its peak, the Chimú Empire controlled a 600-mile-long territory along the Pacific coast and interior valleys from the modern Peru-Ecuador border to Lima.
Only the Inca commanded a larger empire than the Chimú in pre-Columbian South America, and superior Inca forces put an end to the Chimú Empire around A.D. 1475.
Huanchaquito-Las Llamas (generally referred to by the researchers as “Las Llamas,”) first made headlines in 2011, when the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas were found during an emergency dig directed by study co-author Prieto. An archaeologist and Huanchaco native, Prieto was excavating a 3,500-year-old temple down the road from the sacrifice site when local residents first alerted him to human remains eroding from nearby coastal dunes.
By the time excavations concluded at Las Llamas in 2016, more than 140 sets of child remains and 200 juvenile llamas had been discovered at the site; rope and textiles found in the burials are radiocarbon dated to between 1400 and 1450.