Sacrificed Kids Had Their Hearts Ripped Out 550 Years Ago

The remains of a sacrificed child (left) and llama (right) that were found at the Peruvian site called Las Llamas.
The remains of a sacrificed child (left) and llama (right) that were found at the Peruvian site called Las Llamas. (Image credit: Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic)

More than 550 years ago, in one of history's largest human sacrifices, about 140 children and 200 llamas were killed at a site in Peru that's now called Las Llamas, archaeologists have discovered. The reason for the sacrifice? That remains a mystery.

The chests of the buried children, who were between 5 and 14 years old when they were sacrificed, had been cut open. The hearts of at least some of the children were removed, said John Verano, an anthropology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who co-directs excavations at Las Llamas. Verano told Live Science that some people in Peru and Bolivia still remove the hearts of sacrificed llamas.

Many of the children were also found with red pigment smeared on their faces. As far as the scientists can tell, the children died when their chests were cut open. However, it is possible that they were killed first using some other method that hasn't left any traces on their remains, Verano said. [25 Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice]

At the time of the sacrifice, much of Peru was ruled by a people that archaeologists now call the Chimú. These people created sophisticated works of art and built a large city at a site called Chan Chan. As far as archaeologists know, the Chimú did not practice slavery, Verano said.

About 140 child sacrifices have been discovered at the site of Las Llamas in Peru. Their chests were found cut open, with the hearts of at least some of the children removed. (Image credit: Gabriel Prieto/National Geographic)

This mass child sacrifice appears to predate the conquest of the Chimú by the Inca, which took place around A.D. 1470. If the sacrifice wasn't related to that takeover, perhaps the Chimú suffered from environmental problems caused by El Niño — a climate cycle that causes warm water to pool offshore of northwestern South America, causing changes in global weather patterns — and carried out the sacrifice in the hope that, somehow, it would alleviate the conditions, Verano said.

The children appear to have been healthy and well nourished at the time of their death, and there are no signs that they tried to escape the sacrifice, Verano said. Some of the llamas, however, tried to flee. "The llama footprints sometimes suggest this, and they [the llamas] had ropes around their necks to lead/control them," Verano said.

The children were buried facing the sea, while the llamas were buried facing east, toward the Andes mountains. Why this was done is unclear. "One possibility is that llamas originally came from the highlands, and the Chimú had deities and art that focused on marine themes, like fish and sea birds, so they had the children face the sea," Verano said.

In addition to the sacrifices recently discovered at Las Llamas, another case of Chimú child sacrifice was found recently at a different Peruvian site: Pampa La Cruz, archaeologists reported recently at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Archaeologists are not yet certain how many kids were sacrificed at that site.

The research at Las Llamas is funded by the National Geographic Society and was reported exclusively in National Geographic. The research is being prepared for scientific publication. Gabriel Prieto, a researcher at the National University of Trujillo in Peru, is the other co-director of the Las Llamas excavations. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.