When archaeologists earlier this millennia discovered an ancient Aztec burial site near Mexico City where 42 children had been ritually murdered in the 15th century, it was the largest such sacrificial burial plot ever unearthed in the Americas.
But, no matter how viscerally disturbing, that awful sacrificial event was dwarfed by what was found starting in 2015 at the Huanchaquito (pronounced wan-cha-kee-toe) Las Llamas site in northern Peru, near the ancient Chimu people’s capital, Chan Chan. Archaeologists who converged there discovered the remnants of a staggering official act of 15th-century brutality.
Over several years of investigation, scientists uncovered the combined skeletal remains of 269 young boys and girls between the ages of five and 14, three adults, and 200 juvenile llamas (the body count is expected to grow as the dig continues). The chests of many of the children and animals were cut open and their hearts presumably removed in what was thought to be a mass sacrifice to the gods of a now extinct religion, National Geographic magazine reported in its February 2019 edition that I recently read.
Scientists studying the site believe that the large sacrifice may have been prompted by a huge El Nino, an equatorial band of ocean warming, which at the time caused devastating rainstorms, floods and ruined crops, possibly threatening Chimu survival.
The enormous scope of these appalling injustices tells us three truths today: (1) religious ideas can bequeath incredibly terrible consequences, (2) doctrines of supernatural faith have been historically used to justify the unconscionable waste of a society’s most valuable gifts — its children and the providers of its sustenance and livelihood, and (3) when government and supernatural religion meld, any atrocity is possible, even likely.
“Archaeologists have found evidence of human sacrifice in all parts of the world,” writes Kristin Romey in her National Geographic piece on the Huanchaquito Las Llamas discovery. “Victims may number in the hundreds, and often they’re deemed to be prisoners of war, or casualties of ritual combat, or retainers killed upon the death of a leader or the construction of a sacred building.”
However, the mass ritual slaughter of children appears to be historically “rare,” Romey says.
A tip to a local archaeologist from a pizza shop owner in the area who said bones were jutting from a nearby plot of land, though, proved that “rare” does not mean never.
Unlike traditional Chimu burials of the time studded with ornamentation, these victims, were buried without finery, and instead of being placed in sitting positions, were interred on their backs or sides. Archaeologists don’t know why. Instead of adornments,
“[Many of the children] were buried alongside very young llamas and possibly alpacas,” Romey writes. “As vital sources of food, fiber, and transport, these Andean animals were among the Chimu’s most valuable assets.”
The condition of the skeletons tell a tale of brutal and heartless (literally!) efficiency.
So, since the divinities worshipped in Chimu culture were so important to the people’s identity and believed so intimately linked with their survival that no sacrifice was apparently too extravagant or expensive to appease any apparent godly wrath.
“[T]he children and animals were deliberately killed in the same manner — with a horizontal cut across the sternum, likely followed by removal of the heart,” Romey explains. “[Biological anthropologist John Verano] found the consistency of the cut location, as well as the absence of any ‘hesitation marks’ — stop-starts of the blade — on the bones especially striking. ‘It’s ritual killing,’ he said.”
The Chimu left no written records so much of what is known about them comes from archaeological digs like that at Huanchaquito Las Llamas and from Spanish chronicles. History tells us, though, that the Chimu were ultimately conquered around 1470 by the Inca, who then 60 years later were vanquished by Spanish conquistadors.
But we would do well to keep this in mind: Religious fantasies believed by a people living more than 550 years ago led them to unjustifiably murder 269 of their priceless children, three adults and 200 animals that were their most prized and valuable possessions.
Human beings are still killing each other in the name of religion today, such as atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, ex-Muslim apostates in Pakistan, non-Hindus in India, and on and on.
The tragic irony is that any omnibenevolent divinity, as every major religion describes Him (and it’s always a “him”), would never conceivably endorse such behavior, much less allow it to happen.
Indeed, the only vestige that remains of these shocking atrocities, besides the bones, is the lingering stench of horror. Certainly, the Chimu, as all other child-sacrificing cultures, never received the benefit they sought from their evil deed — because, as always, there was no one up there listening.
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