The elaborately decorated mummified remains of sacrificial llamas have been uncovered in Peru, and they may have been used by the Inca people to placate the locals after they invaded their land, archaeologists claim.
A team from the University of Calgary and the University of Huamanga, Peru, uncovered the unusual animal remains in the old Incan administrative centre of Tambo Viejo, once used to oversee people in the Acari Valley.
These are the first known ‘naturally mummified’ remains of llamas, an animal which experts know held great meaning to the Inca people and were often sacrificed.
They are ‘exceptionally well-preserved’ and were likely killed over 500 years ago according to the team that found them, and they were decorated with the marks of a ritual offering ahead of a harvest or event.
According to the research team there were no obvious signs of slaughter or death when they examined the remains of the decorated llama mummies – suggesting they may have been buried alive.
Lidio M. Valdez from the University of Calgary and colleagues were excavating an Incan administrative region where the bones of hundreds of sacrificed llamas had previously been uncovered.
However, this discovery was unique, as the llamas were decorated and appeared to be buried alive, rather than as part of a mass throat cutting sacrifice.
‘Historical records indicate animal sacrifices were important to the Inca, who used them as special offerings to supernatural deities,’ said Dr Valdez, lead author of the excavation and follow up paper.
‘This was especially the case of llamas, regarded second only to humans in sacrificial value,’ Valdez added.
Spanish conquistadors documented how llamas would be killed by the hundred to guarantee successful harvests, healthy herds, and victory in war, often cutting their throats and letting them fall into pits.
However, this new discovery, published in the journal Antiquity, suggests they had another key purpose beyond religious sacrifice – winning over locals in a newly conquered or settled region of territory.
Archaeologists involved in the dig used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint when the sacrifices were made and found it would have been sometime around 500 years ago.
This discovery revealed the offerings, which also included decorated guinea pigs, took place after the in the region – in the Acari Valley – had been peacefully annexed by the Inca.
The researchers also excavated the surrounding area, revealing the event was associated with large ovens and other traces of feasts and celebration.
‘The offerings likely were part of much larger feasts and gatherings, sponsored by the state,’ said Dr Valdez, adding this may have been a way to placate a newly annexed group.
‘The state befriended the local people with food and drink, cementing political alliances, whilst placing offerings allowed the Inca to claim the land as theirs.’
As well as shedding light on why these sacrifices took place, this new find also provides key insight into the ceremony itself, explained Valdez.
The natural mummification process also preserved many of the adornments the llamas were decorated with by those preparing them for sacrifice – including valuable bracelets and string.
These decorations suggest that the llamas were some sort of special gifts to deities, rather than part of a mass slaughter, as witnessed by the conquistadors.
The exceptional preservation allowed the researchers to investigate how the llamas were sacrificed, finding that it was a very different process to the one witnessed by the Spanish invaders.
Whilst some historical accounts indicate the animals had their throats cut, there was no evidence of that taking place here – although it may have been that this was a special event.
The llamas and guinea pigs sacrificed as part of this ‘feast’ or placation event may have been buried alive, similar to how the Inca carried out some human sacrifices, the team explained.
These graves were then marked with the feathers of tropical birds, perhaps to further cement the Inca’s new authority over the land – and to act as a reminder to those living on the land.
‘Through these ceremonies, the Inca created new orders, new understandings and meanings that helped to legitimise and justify their actions to both the conquerors and the conquered,’ the archaeologists wrote.
Historical documents indicate the southern coast of Peru was peacefully annexed by the Inca and they built several administrative centres in the region.
Tambo Viejo appears to have been one such centre, likely to govern the surrounding Acari Valley. Dr Valdez and the team have been excavating the site have been since 2018.
They have uncovered a large plaza, an Inca ushnu – a symbolic or religious structure -, and that an important road from the Nazca Valley stopped at the settlement. Despite these many discoveries, many mysteries remain.
‘It was known that Tambo Viejo was an Inca provincial centre, but it was uncertain its function,’ said Dr Valdez, continuing, ‘What was the purpose of building Tambo Viejo and what did the Inca do at there?’
‘This research has just found offerings dedicate to the most important Inca deities and indicates that the ritual performances celebrated at Tambo Viejo were of a high order,’ Dr Valdez added.
Excavations at Tambo Viejo have been disrupted by COVID-19, but Dr Valdez and the team hope they can return soon to continue their work.
The findings of the excavation have been published in the journal Antiquity.