Bioarchaeology of Human Sacrifice: Violence, Identity and the Evolution of Ritual Killing at Cerro Cerrillos, Peru

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Human sacrifice is a complex subject, variously involving offerings to the supernatural, punishment, the elimination of enemies or trophy-taking. However, more than a century of archaeological and ethnohistoric scholarship indicates that Andean ritual killing was overwhelmingly religious in nature. The tradition of sacrifice emerges in the art of north coast Peruvian societies during the Cupisnique period (1500-650 BC), markedby the genesis of a class of 'Decapitator' entities and the depiction of auto-sacrifice (Cordy-Collins 2001a). The Moche (AD 100-750) inherited much of this tradition and institutionalised sacrifice into their artistic canon. Large-scale polychrome murals and narrative scenes on ceramic bottles depict scenes of ritual combat, prisoner-taking, blood sacrifice and dismemberment (Alva & Donnan 1993: 127-41). Excavations at the Huaca de la Luna (Moche Valley), Huaca Cao Viejo (Chicama Valley) and Dos Cabezas (Jequetepeque Valley) have revealed physical evidence that endorses the artistic representations (Bourget 2001a; Cordy-Collins 2001a; Verano 2001a).

Recently, palaeopathology and bioarchaeological approaches have shed direct light on the nature of Andean ritual violence (Tung 2007; Toyne 2008; Verano 2008; Klaus 2009). Two principal themes of investigation--the mode of sacrifice and the identity of the victims--are leading to a new understanding of regional cultural developments. For example, skeletal remains in mass graves from AD 200-600 in the Huaca de la Luna's Plazas 3A and 3C (in north coast Peru) revealed a diversity of rituals among the Moche involving more than 100 young and middle adult males (Verano 2001a & b, 2008; Hamilton 2005). Victims exhibited trauma consistent with throat-slitting, massive cranial injuries, decapitation and penetrating stab wounds (Verano 2008). A wide variety of postmortem manipulation involved the disarticulation of decomposing remains, defleshing and the possible ritual display of the excarnated bodies. While the later Plaza 3A killings may have been crisis rituals, associated with a politically fatal El Nino event (Bourget 2001b), earlier examples are associated with the construction of elite tombs.

After the Moche period, art shifts to non-narrative forms. Depictions of sacrifice disappear almost completely in the subsequent Lambayeque or Sican culture and actual sacrifice took unprecedented forms. Complete and un-mutilated bodies were used in the dedication of temples and in elite funerals, possibly involving poisoning, ligature or other means that did not affect bone (Klaus 2009). But blood sacrifice re-emerged on the north coast during the Chimu (AD 1375-1470) and Inca (AD 1470-1532) periods. In the Lambayeque region, 33 subadults and adult females sacrificed by throat-slitting and chest opening were buried into Huaca Norte (Chotuna Archaeological Complex) spanning a 200 year sequence (Klaus et al. 2010). Contemporaneous offerings of human lives--but on a far larger scale--were also conducted at the monumental site of Tucume, 25km to the north-east. There, at least 117 children and men were periodically killed at the Temple of the Sacred Stone (Toyne 2008). Elsewhere, ritualised secular executions are recognised at Pacamamu (Jequetepeque Valley) (Verano 1986) and Punta Lobos (Huarmey Valley) (Verano & Walde 2004).

Victim identity, the second major research theme, has benefited from developments in bioarchaeology that focus on the biological correlates of lived experiences (Knudson & Stojanowski 2008, 2009). The young and middle adult males at the Huaca de la Luna lacked widespread signs of morbidity (Verano 2008), perhaps reflecting a privileged social existence, while skeletal robusticity and healed antemortem nasal and forearm parry fractures may correlate to warrior status. Iconography and mtDNA haplogroup homogeneity suggested that a local elite Moche lineage was sacrificing its own members (Shimada et al. …