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Llamas may have been buried alive in ritual sacrifice by the Incas

The remains of five llamas that may have been ritually sacrificed by Incas have been found in Peru. It is not clear how the animals were killed, but it may have been a slow death.

“I have no way to prove it, but I think they were buried alive,” says Lidio Valdez at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He says the llamas do not have injuries like knife wounds to their throats, which would point to different methods of killing.

The Inca empire dominated western South America for several hundred years, until the Spanish invaded in the 1500s. They never invented the wheel and many other seemingly key technologies, but nevertheless built an advanced society.


Llamas were central to their success. “They were the single most important animal,” says Valdez, providing transport, skin, fibre, fertiliser and meat. “In addition to that, the Incas believed llamas were sacred animals.”

Spanish people who came into contact with the Inca reported that they regularly killed hundreds of llamas, either for feasts or for ritual sacrifices to deities. However, while archaeologists have found many examples of llamas that were killed and then eaten, llamas that were ritually sacrificed have not been found before.

Valdez and his colleagues found five such llamas in an Inca settlement called Tambo Viejo in the Acari Valley, near the coast of Peru. The site had previously been looted, so Valdez suspects there were originally more.

The llamas had no injuries, but their legs were securely tied together. Valdez suspects this was done to keep them under control while they were buried alive.

Valdez says this method of sacrifice fits with what we know about Inca practices. “Incas used to sacrifice children, and it is said some of the children were buried alive,” he says, referring to written accounts from Spanish conquistadors. “If they did that with children, I’m sure they would have done the same thing with llamas.”

A piece of charcoal found next to one of the llamas was radiocarbon-dated to between 1432 and 1459. Tambo Viejo was annexed by the Inca empire around this time, and the sacrifices – combined with feasting – may have been a way to cement the new social order, says Valdez.

Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.183

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