Studying sacrificial llamas in ancient Peru using stable isotope analysis

By Tekla Anne Hunter Cunningham, SAS student ambassador for the bulletin

Headlines were made around the world when a large mass sacrifice of children and llamas was discovered at the site of Huanchaquito-Las Llamas. A study published this year discusses the life histories of 82 of the sacrificed llamas. 

In 2011, residents of the city of Trujillo, Peru noticed bones coming out of a bluff near their houses. They contacted archaeologist Gabriel Prieto, who was working at a site nearby. Initial rescue excavations performed at the site, which is formally named Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, unearthed 42 children and 76 llamas. Dr. Prieto and a team of other archaeologists returned in subsequent years to excavate further. By 2016, when the excavations concluded, they had found more than 140 children and 200 llamas. Rope and textiles from the site were dated to the Late Intermediate Period (c. AD 1400 to 1450; Prieto et al., 2019). 

Huanchaquito-Las Llamas represents the largest known mass sacrifice of children and llamas in the Americas, and possibly in the whole world. Llamas and alpacas had a prominent role in social, economic, and symbolic life in the Andes. They were the main animals used for sacrifices within the region (Goepfert, 2011). 

This paper by Dufour et al. (2020) seeks to understand the life histories of 82 of the sacrificed llamas found at the site through the analysis of δ13C and δ15N values of their bone collagen. The main goals of the study were to determine whether the llamas were locally raised or if they had been transported from the highlands, whether they were raised under similar or different conditions, and to determine the origin of the animals through comparison with other isotopic datasets. 

It was determined that the sacrificial animals did not originate from the highlands. The young llamas would have spent most of their life near the site in the lowlands before being killed as part of the sacrifice. Isotopic inter-individual variability indicated that they consumed a wide range of wild and cultivated plants, many of which grew in different conditions. This suggests that the llamas were raised in separate herds that were managed by different individuals and were exposed to different grazing conditions. Comparison with previously published isotopic datasets suggests that there are differences between herds that were raised for ritual purposes and those that were not. The comparison also suggests the existence of a diverse range of pastoral practices throughout the region. The observed uniformity in terms of coat colour and the young age ranges could suggest that the llamas came from specialized herds specifically for sacrifices or other rituals. The evidence for multiple pastoral practices could possibly be due to the requirements for a massive number of llamas which exceeded the capacity of the normal ritual herds, necessitating animals to be used from other herds.  

The motivation for the mass sacrifice is not known, however it is thought to be associated with sudden heavy rainfall and flooding that could have drastically affected the region (Prieto et al., 2019). A large sacrifice would have been necessary to help calm the weather. The findings of this paper on the life histories of the llamas provide insight on the history behind this extraordinary site and the llamas that were selected for sacrifice. 

To access the full article: Dufour, E., Goepfert, N., Le Neün, M. et al. (2020). Life history and origin of the camelids provisioning a mass killing sacrifice during the Chimú Period: Insight from stable isotopes. Environmental Archaeology.



Dufour, E., Goepfert, N., Le Neün, M., Prieto, G., & Verano, J. W. (2020). Life history and origin of the camelids provisioning a mass killing sacrifice during the Chimú Period: Insight from stable isotopes. Environmental Archaeology25(3), 310-324.

Goepfert, N. (2011). Frayer la route d’un monde inversé. Sacrifice et offrandes animales dans la culture Mochica (100-800 apr. J.-C.), Côte Nord du Pérou.

Prieto, G., Verano, J. W., Goepfert, N., Kennett, D., Quilter, J., Leblanc, S., ... & Dufour, E. (2019). A mass sacrifice of children and camelids at the Huanchaquito-Las Llamas site, Moche Valley, Peru. PloS One14(3), e0211691.