TAMBO VIEJO, Peru—The discovery of four mummified sacrificial llamas in Peru confirms for the first time that the Incas buried animals alive.
Archeologists from the University of Calgary recently found the llamas as part of an ongoing dig at the Tambo Viejo site in southern Peru’s Acari Valley, that started in August 2018. The discovery throws fresh light on the religious rituals performed by the mysterious people who once ruled much of South America.
“The Tambo Viejo discoveries are the first ones we’ve made that reveal these Incan rituals,” lead researcher of the archeological team, professor Lidio Valdez, told Zenger News. “Before this discovery, there were ethno-historical sources talking about Incas sacrificing llamas and guinea pigs, but the sources were not always precise.”
The southern coast of Peru is a desert, which allows the preservation of organic remains.
“For archeology, this region is a paradise — it makes for a very rich laboratory,” said Valdez.
The llamas found by Valdez and his team — three of which were white and one was brown — were so well-preserved that the colorful decorations they bear are still in good condition. That circumstance also showed that they were buried alive, a ritual method that could only have been speculated about until now.
“The way they were buried and the orientation (with the head looking to the east, the sun), plus the offerings we found with them that were linked to the llamas suggest that the burial was done as part of a ritual,” Valdez explained, adding that until now, most sources on Incan animal sacrifice came from records from Peru’s Colonial period.
Researchers also say the find shows that the relationship between Incas and cattle was more than just meat provision. Inca sacrifices usually consisted of cutting the animals throat and cutting out their hearts, or smashing in their heads, but the mummies showed that these animals were buried alive as part of the ritual.
“The llamas do not have any cuts that suggest that they had died before being buried,” Valdez said. “The heads were not lying on the side, but were in a position seen in a live animal. Their eyes were also open. All that suggests that the sand used to bury them was put there while the animals were still alive.”
Radiocarbon tests were performed to date the animals, which revealed that they were buried between 1432 and 1459, decades before 1476 when the annexation of the Acari Valley to the Incan empire was previously believed to have happened.
Archeologists also found the remains of 100 guinea pigs at the site that were decorated similarly to the llamas, suggesting that they were also offerings to the gods.
Incas used to make offerings only of domestic animals and not wild ones, as the latter were considered property of the gods, Valdez said.
The Incas are also known to have deemed llamas their second-highest sacrifice, behind human children. Llama sacrifices were believed to occur monthly, with the biggest such ceremonies taking place at the beginning of the sowing season and at the end of harvest.
Chroniclers such as Bernabe Cobo wrote in 1600 that llama sacrifices were dedicated to different gods, according to their color. Brown llamas were sacrificed to the creator god Viracocha, while white ones were offerings for the Sun god, Inti.
In this case, researchers believe that the ritual was done with the goal of declaring that a new region was now a part of the Inca empire.
Valdez, who is Peruvian but lives in Canada, has been working in the Acari Valley for three decades but has had to temporarily stop work there during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are still a lot of things to do there, but this pandemic is blocking everything,” he said.
(Edited by Matthew Hall and Carlin Becker)