London: An anthropologist has discovered a site where inhabitants of 10th-century Peru brought sinister novelty to their rites by slaughtering children.
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," New Scientist quoted Haagen Klaus of Utah Valley University in Orem as saying.
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 Sican.
To investigate the role of ritual sacrifice in the Middle Sican 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.
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.
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
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 said that the site nevertheless provides an insight into ancient socioeconomic inequality and how "ritual and performance can create group identity".