Northern Peru is known for its pre-Columbian ruins and its sunny beaches. A recent archaeological discovery combines both—in the most grisly way imaginable. At a dig in a shantytown near Trujillo, Peru, archaeologists have located the bodies of hundreds of children and llamas, preserved in sand for more than 500 years.
It’s thought to be evidence of the largest child sacrifice ever uncovered by archaeologists, according to an exclusive report by National Geographic.
Researchers discovered the remains of 140 children and 200 llamas at Las Llamas, an archaeological site in Huanchaco, Peru near what is now Trujillo. The skeletons were in the sand near the Pacific Ocean. Nearby preserved footprints seem to indicate that adults and dogs drove the children and llamas to the edge of a bluff, then killed and buried them.
The children’s bodies showed head trauma; their ribs had been cut and their chests torn open. The efficient, similar cuts hint to the killings being sacrificial; they are thought to have taken place during a single event between 1400 and 1450.
It isn’t the only time children were sacrificed in the area. In 2011, archaeologistsfound the bones of 42 children and 72 animals—probably llamas—near the site.
The deaths occurred near what was then the capital of the Chimú Empire in northern Peru.Chimú was the second-largest empire in the Andes region and at one time, it dominated much of the northern Peruvian coast with its urban, agricultural and military might. The Chimúdied out after around 1470, when their ruler was captured by the Inca Empire.
Without contemporaneous records of the grisly events, historians can’t be certain the site was dedicated to ritual sacrifices. But the way the children died—and the mud in which their footprints were preserved—suggests they may have been sacrificed.
Researchers think that the group of children and animals could have been killed when an extreme weather event caused flooding in the area and destroyed some of the Chimús’ signature canals. Perhaps, bioarchaeologist Haagen Klaus tells National Geographic, ritual sacrifices of adults were seen as not doing enough to stop the environmental devastation.
“They may have seen that [adult sacrifice] was ineffective,” said Klaus. “The rains kept coming. Maybe there was a need for a new type of sacrificial victim.”
“They were possibly offering the gods the most important thing they had as a society,” Gabriel Prieto, an archaeologist at the National University of Trujillo who led the dig,told the Associated Press. Now, say archaeologists, they’ll continue their search for child sacrifices in the area—proof that there’s always more to explore, no matter how horrifying the discoveries may be.