Archaeologists investigating a cluster of 15th century tombs in northern Peru have uncovered evidence that the occupants may have been killed as part of a ritual sacrifice.

The bones were uncovered in a complex of ruins known as Chotuna-Chornancap, a site that was constructed by tribe of people known as the Sicán. It later passed into the hands of the Chimú people, and later still, the mighty Inca empire. All three civilizations practiced human sacrifice, and used Chotuna-Chornancap for this very purpose. The signs of sacrifice are present in many of the skeletons uncovered. Many of the adult skeletons have shattered ribcages, the end results of priests cutting out their sacrifices heart as an offering to the gods.

Still more graves contain the body of children, who were a common choice for sacrifice: historical accounts suggest that some children were specially raised for the express purpose of being sacrificed. One of the tombs appears to contain a particularly high-status individual, with the sacrifices buried around him or her most likely offerings to that individual. Some of the child skeletons show that their feet were amputated; researcher Carlos Wester de la Torre explained that the removal of the feet suggests ”they may have been sacrificed as offerings in order to function as ‘guardians’ of the [other] grave”

Haagen Klaus, a bioarchaeologist at George Mason University and a researcher at the Chotuna-Chornancap site, said: ‘It’s not unusual that sacrifices are made to…individuals, sometimes during the funeral or even years or generations afterwards. But we can see that a number of the individuals that were buried were children – and that does fit into the larger pattern of ritual sacrifice.”

A number of artifacts have also been unearthed, including a sculpture of a smiling man, some clay pots, and a vase depicting a man chewing coca leaves.

Anthropologist Kim MacQuarrie has argued that the particularly strong practice of human sacrifice in ancient South American civilizations is a result of how volatile the region is: beset by frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and flooding from the El Nino effect, the gods must have seemed particularly quick to anger, and violent in their fury. Unsurprisingly, these civilizations were willing to go to extreme lengths in order to placate their wrath. Often these sacrifices would take the form of animals, or simple prayers and offerings, however: ”In especially uncertain times, such as when an emperor died, or when volcanoes erupted or severe earthquakes or famine struck, priests sacrificed captured warriors or specially raised, perfectly formed children to the gods. The Incas believed in an afterlife and that the children they sacrificed would inhabit a better, and more abundantly provided for, world”.

The ruins of Chotuna-Chornancap were in use for centuries, and endured the rise and fall of three civilizations. Researchers believe they have many more secrets yet to discover. ‘The site itself is huge’ said Haagen Klaus ‘There is at least a hundred years of archaeological discovery for us and our descendants here’.

– Greg Taylor, Correspondent (Science)