The remains of more than 140 children and 200 young llamas have been found in a mass grave in Peru created after an ancient child-sacrifice ritual, which archaeologists believe took place some 550 years ago.
Along the Pacific cliffs of Peru's northern coast, in the city of Trujillo, scientists uncovered evidence of the largest mass child sacrifice in the Americas, and possibly in world history, National Geographic said Thursday.
"While incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya and Inca have been recorded in colonial-era Spanish chronicles and documented in modern scientific excavations, the discovery of a large-scale child sacrifice event in the little-known pre-Columbian Chimu civilization is unprecedented in the Americas – if not in the entire world," National Geographic said.
"The skeletal remains of both children and animals show evidence of cuts to the sternum as well as rib dislocations, which suggest that the victims' chests were cut open and pulled apart, perhaps to facilitate the removal of the heart," the magazine said.
It also noted that the skulls were covered with a bright red pigment, a sign consistent with human sacrifice.
The National Geographic team of experts, led by Peruvian explorer Gabriel Prieto, reports that the children were aged between eight and 12 and buried facing the sea, while the llamas were all less than 18 months old and faced the Andes.
"It is ritual killing, and it's very systematic," said John Verano, a physical anthropologist from Tulane University.
"When people hear about what happened and the scale of it, the first thing they always ask is why?" Prieto said, explaining that a layer of mud was caked around the bodies, suggesting evidence of severe rains from El Nino in a usually dry area.
The ancient Chimu people occupied the third largest city in Peru, with approximately 800,000 inhabitants. Evidence shows they worshipped the moon.
This is the second mass grave found in the area: another site was uncovered in 2011, with 42 children and 76 llamas unearthed outside a 3,500-year-old temple.