Inequality drove ancient Peruvians to child sacrifice

Date:

Share post:

Sacrifice is an age-old ritual, but the inhabitants of 10th-century Peru brought sinister novelty to their rites by slaughtering children.

Short life (image: Sam Scholes) In the Lambayeque valley on the north coast of the country, the earliest definitive evidence of ritual child sacrifice has been uncovered. The bloodletting took place at a site called Cerro Cerrillos.

“The scale and sheer complexity of the blood sacrifice of children at Cerro Cerrillos appears to be something completely new,” said Haagen Klaus of Utah Valley University in Orem.

This practice, which emerged between 900 and 1100 AD, may have been a way for a particular ethnic group – the Muchik – to solidifying their cultural identity in a landscape dominated by another, elite ethnic group, the Sicán.

Teeth and bones

To investigate the role of ritual sacrifice in the Middle Sicán period, researchers examined 81 skeletons at the sacrificial site, probing their teeth and bones to determine who they were and why they’d been killed.

The researchers found that 70 per cent of the identifiable victims were anaemic Muchik children, aged 2 to 15, who’d lived out their short lives on an inferior diet of maize and squash.

Analysis of skeletal slash marks shows that each victim had been stabbed repeatedly in the neck or chest with a metal knife, and the chest cavities pried open, perhaps to encourage more bloodletting, or to extract the heart, and to remove the lungs for divination.

Klaus’s team also discovered the seeds of Nectandra plants near the skeletons. Since these have paralytic and hallucinogenic properties, Klaus suggests that the drug might have been given to the victims before the ritual killing began.

Slashed to the bone (image: Sam Scholes) After the bloodletting, victims’ bodies were allowed to decompose for a month or longer, swaddled in shrouds and then laid to rest amid ritual feasting. Bits of llama bones scattered about the burial site suggest the revellers dined on llama roast, and put aside the legs and heads for the dead children, lest they get peckish in the afterlife.

“It was sort of like Finnegans Wake, with more corn beer,” said Klaus.

The ancestors of the Muchik, the Moche, sacrificed warriors in their rituals, so what made the Muchik pick on children?

Klaus speculates that the rituals may have been driven by the failure of the Moche warrior sacrifices to drive away bad weather brought by El Nino. If adults didn’t work, why not try kids? When the belief system and the religion were challenged by reality, he says, it could have had knock-on effects.

“It shows the interplays between environmental change, culture, politics and religion.”

But it’s impossible to determine whether the people who killed the Cerro Cerrillos children were even the same people who buried them, let alone why they were sacrificed.

Klaus says that the site nevertheless provides an insight into ancient socioeconomic inequality and how “ritual and performance can create group identity”.

Anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University, New Orleans, doesn’t buy a direct relationship between El Nino and Moche sacrifice.

“My excavations of a sequence of several hundred years of Moche sacrifices at the Huaca de la Luna found no association with catastrophic weather events.”

Journal reference: Antiquity, vol 84, p 1102


Author: Sonia Van Gilder Cook | Source: New Scientist [December 06, 2010]


ADVERTISEMENT

spot_img

Related articles

East Antarctic Ice Sheet has stayed frozen for 14 million years

Antarctica was once a balmier place, lush with plants and lakes. Figuring out just how long the continent...

First images of historic San Francisco shipwreck, SS City of Rio de Janeiro

NOAA and partners today released three-dimensional sonar maps and images of an immigrant steamship lost more than 100...

Radiation from early universe found key to answer major questions in physics

Astrophysicists at UC San Diego have measured the minute gravitational distortions in polarized radiation from the early universe...

Big Bang theory challenged by big chill

The start of the Universe should be modeled not as a Big Bang but more like water freezing...

Investigating the origin of the ancestral Puebloans at Crow Canyon

Dirt under the fingernails, the fragrance of sage wafting in the air and the thrill of discovering an...

Natura 2000 networks: Improving current methods in biodiversity conservation

The world's biodiversity is currently in rapid decline, with human-mediated global change being a principal cause. Europe is...

Treasure hunters in Sri Lanka prefer Buddha statues

Investigations have revealed valuable Buddha statues are mostly vandalised by treasure hunters in pursuit of artefacts with archaeological...

Egyptian inscription linked to eruption of Thera

An inscription on a 3,500-year-old stone block from Egypt may be one of the world's oldest weather reports...