LIMA (Peru) • Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 140 children in the northern coast of Peru in what appears to have been the largest instance of mass child sacrifice in the Americas - if not the entire world, according to an exclusive report from National Geographic.
The macabre discovery was made on top of a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean, amid cinder block residential compounds in La Libertad outside Trujillo, Peru's third-largest city. It is estimated that the children - and 200 young llamas - were sacrificed 550 years ago, when the area was home to the pre-Columbian Chimu civilisation.
The Chimu was the second-largest empire in Peru before Spanish colonisation, next to the Incas, who were also known to sacrifice children during rituals.
Until now, the largest incident of mass child sacrifice was believed to have occurred in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan - modern-day Mexico City - where the bodies of 42 children had been discovered.
Scientific investigations into the Peru site, formally called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, are being carried out by an international team funded by the National Geographic Society. The team is led by Dr Gabriel Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo and Dr John Verano of Tulane University.
"I, for one, never expected it," Dr Verano told the magazine about the magnitude of the discovery, adding: "And I don't think anyone else would have, either."
Excavations at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas began in 2011, when the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas were found at a 3,500-year-old temple nearby.
The excavations continued through 2016, and resulted in the discovery of more than 140 sets of child remains and 200 juvenile llamas, said National Geographic.
Items found in the burials, such as ropes, have been radiocarbon dated to between 1400 and 1450, towards the end of the Chimu Empire's rule, before they were conquered by the Incas.
It is estimated that the children ranged from five to 14 years old, with the majority between the ages of eight and 12, according to the magazine.
The llamas were all less than 18 months old and were buried facing east, towards the Andes.
The children's skulls are stained with red, cinnabar-based pigment, evidence that they were sacrificed in ritual killings, as the pigment was used in ceremonies.
Cuts to both the children and llamas' skeletal remains - particularly to the sternum and rib bone - suggest their chests were cut open, likely so that their hearts could be removed, according to National Geographic.
Researchers and anthropologists are trying to understand the motivation behind the large-scale sacrifice, and why the burial pits combined children with baby llamas.
"When people hear about what happened and the scale of it, the first thing they always ask is 'why'," Dr Prieto told National Geographic.
The Chimu civilisation extended along the Peruvian coast to where Ecuador begins, with its empire brought down by the Incas in around 1475, just a few decades after the sacrifice at Las Llamas.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE