Seen earlier this month, archaeologist Oscar Gabriel Prieto kneels by the 800-year-old skeleton of a child recently unearthed near a fishing village in Peru. The skeleton was among the bones of 42 children discovered in a shallow grave on a sand dune near the town of Huanchaquito.
Alongside the children were 76 skeletons of camelids—most likely llamas but possibly alpacas—perhaps intended to transport the victims to the afterlife, researchers say.
Prieto's team suspects the children were killed as part of a religious ceremony by the Chimú culture. Famed for irrigation advances, the Chimú occupied the northern and central coasts of Peru from about A.D. 1100 to 1500, when the culture was conquered by its neighbors, the Inca.
The newfound mass grave is just over half a mile (a kilometer) from the ancient Chimú capital of Chan Chan.
"That's what makes this so interesting. Up to this point, all the Chimú ritual sacrifices and ceremonies in this area were made within Chan Chan," said Prieto, an archeology graduate student at Yale University.
"Now it's clear that they were using the landscape" in their rituals as well. The team thinks the children and animals may have been sacrificed as part of a fertility ritual associated with the ocean.
"In the north coast of Peru, the ocean is very closely tied to agriculture," Prieto said, "because the temperature of the water can determine whether there will be rain or not."
(Also see "Ancient Tomb Found in Mexico Reveals Mass Child Sacrifice.")