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The Chimú People of Peru Practiced Child Sacrifice on a Great Scale

Updated on August 28, 2017
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Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.

Ruins of Chan Chan
Ruins of Chan Chan

When times were hard, something drastic seemed necessary

The country of Peru offers the most spectacular archaeological sites in South America, and certainly some of the best were built by the Chimor kingdom, whose people came to be known as the Chimú. Arising about A.D. 900, the Chimú created an artistic, architectural and cultural tradition that was the greatest of its time and place.

Moreover, like many of the ancient people of Peru, the Chimú, hoping to influence the fickle nature of the gods, practiced some form of human and/or animal sacrifice, at times sacrificing scores of children.

Let’s discover more about the Chimú, whose only rivals were the great Inca civilization. But even the Inca didn’t build South America’s greatest pre-Columbian city! Please keep reading:

History of the Chimú

The kingdom of Chimor arose from the remnants of the Moche civilization about A.D. 850, and the extent of the both civilizations was about the same - that is the relatively flat, desert strip in the northern coastal area of Peru, some 20 to 100 miles wide in places and immediately west of the Andes Mountains. The Chimú captured water from the rivers and streams emptying from the Andes and, using an extensive system of canals, created a great agricultural-based economy. Much aquatic life was also taken from the Pacific Ocean, where Peru’s fishing industry is still one of the most productive in the world.

Unlike the famous Inca, who worshipped the sun, the Chimú worshipped the moon, perhaps because the moon could be seen during the day and night. The moon deity was known as Pacasmayo. In fact, the Chimú considered the sun the destroyer, maybe because it seemed to have caused the harsh desert environment along the coast of Peru.

Over the centuries, the Chimú came to be known as some of the finest artisans of the time, producing a distinctive shiny black pottery in the image of people or animals. Also experts at metallurgy, the Chimú fashioned objects and decorations in gold, silver, copper, bronze and tumbago (copper and gold); they also produced beautiful and elaborate textiles made from alpaca wool.

Expansion of Empire

The Chimú didn’t greatly expand their dominion until the middle 1300s, when Taycanamo and his sons, particularly Nancen-pinco, conquered the cultures in neighboring valleys, all the way to the Jequetepeque Valley in the north and Carabayallo in the south. The Chimú didn’t meet their match until they encountered the forces of the phenomenal Inca Empire near what is now Lima, Peru in about 1460. Archaeologists disagree on how far south the Chimú expanded their rule.

The Capital City of Chan Chan

Similar to the Inca in their vast Andean empire, the Chimú collected taxes in labor, particularly as it related to the building and maintenance of canals and the management of agricultural production, all of which administered by the ruling hierarchy in walled cities such as Chan Chan, near the modern city of Trujillo. Interestingly, Chan Chan, covering an area of about 20 square kilometers, was the largest pre-Columbian city in South America and the most extensive adobe-built city in the world. It’s been estimated that about 30,000 people may have lived in Chan Chan at one time.

This sizable population could have included as many as 12,000 artisans, making Chan Chan the artistic capital of the Chimor kingdom as well.

Located just miles from the Pacific Ocean, Chan Chan was comprised of ten citadels, each of which may have contained ceremonial rooms, burial chambers, temples, reservoirs and residences, creating a labyrinth of passages, staircases, alcoves and doorways. The walls of the city were 50 to 60 feet high, though no buildings were open to the north, mainly to block the wind and absorb sunlight, warming the inhabitants to the frequent fog. The city was made of adobe brick, upon which a smooth layer was added so intricate carvings could be etched. These carvings represented animals or people in both realistic and stylistic designs.

Around 1100, the population of the city rose dramatically when a canal was built to the nearby Moche River, increasing the city’s water supply. But when a monstrous flood brought on by an El Niño weather pattern destroyed many of the city’s canals, the Chimú began to expand their civilization, hoping the wealth gained from foreign conquests could offset the losses from probable future natural disasters.

Skeletal remains at the site (photo by "Archaeology" magazine)
Skeletal remains at the site (photo by "Archaeology" magazine)
Chimu vessel
Chimu vessel
Chimu mantel
Chimu mantel
Fish carvings at Chan Chan
Fish carvings at Chan Chan
Chimu art
Chimu art
Buildings and passages at Chan Chan
Buildings and passages at Chan Chan
Chimu god, Naymlap, on his boat
Chimu god, Naymlap, on his boat
Inner wall at Chan Chan
Inner wall at Chan Chan

Child and Animal Sacrifice

According to the article “A Society’s Sacrifice,” found in the January/February 2012 issue of Archaeology, the Chimú, during times of great stress, ceremonially destroyed what was most valuable to them – children and camelids such as llamas. In August 2011, archaeologists uncovered the skeletal remains of numerous people and animals at the small coastal town of Huanchaquito, located just one-half mile from the ruins of Chan Chan. After two weeks of excavations, archaeologists discovered the skeletons of 43 humans and 76 camelids, the largest such sacrifice ever found in Peru.

Archaeologists quickly moved the remains to the Chan Chan museum so looters couldn’t destroy or steal these precious finds, giving analysts a chance to figure out why such a large sacrifice seemed necessary to the Chimor civilization. Most of the human skeletons were of children aged 12 to 15 years, their rib cages crushed, so their hearts could be extracted. This great sacrifice represented both the future (the children) and the current wealth of the Chimor kingdom in the form of llamas, the pack animals of the era and also used for food and wool.

Archaeologist Oscar Gabriel Prieto thinks the size of the sacrifice means the Chimú suffered some terrible disaster, making it necessary to appease the wrath of the gods. Possibly an El Niño event similar to the aforementioned one – or perhaps the same one! - caused a prolonged period of heavy rains, damaging canals, agriculture and fishing, so the Chimú felt they had to offer the best of their civilization.

On a related note, the remnants of a similar large sacrifice were found in 1968 at Huanchaco, another Chimú site in Peru.

Interestingly, the Inca also sacrificed children to their gods, dispatching them with clubs and leaving them atop Andean peaks in a ritual known as capachoca. Many mummies of such children have been found in modern times. Of course, child sacrifice has been practiced by numerous cultures throughout history.

Afterword

The Chimú met their match between 1462 and 1470, at which time they clashed for many years with the powerful Inca Empire. When Minchancaman, the last ruler of the Chimú was finally defeated, the Inca moved him and the Chimor kingdom’s gold and silver to the Inca capital of Cuzco, augmenting the spectacular wealth found in their Temple of the Sun. Notably, not much is known about these battles between the Chimú and Inca, because no pre-Columbian written language was ever developed in South America!

Nevertheless, archaeologists continue to shed light on the fabulous culture of the Chimú people, who dominated an impressive portion of Peru before Inca dominance held sway. And, like most ancient Andean cultures, the Chimú felt the need to sacrifice their young during difficult times.

Please leave a comment.

© 2011 Kelley Marks

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