Four beautifully preserved llamas have been discovered at a ritual sacrifice site in Peru. The llamas, still wearing their colorful adornments, serve as the first archaeological evidence linking the ancient Inca to the practice.
The llamas, three white and one brown, were ritually killed over 500 years ago at a Peruvian site called Tambo Viejo. For the Inca, llamas were the preferred sacrificial animal; “their ritual value” was “second only to that of human beings,” according to a new paper published today in Antiquity. The animals were adorned with colorful bracelets and string, reinforcing their value to the gods.
Ethnographic accounts from Spanish colonists describe the sacrifice of llamas by Inca people. These accounts claimed the Inca would sometimes sacrifice 100 llamas at a time, in hopes the gods would return the favor in the form of favorable weather, among other requests.
Incredibly, however, the discovery at Tambo Viejo marks the first time that archaeologists have uncovered definitive evidence of the practice, according to Lidio Valdez, the lead author of the new study and a researcher from the University of Calgary. A team of archaeologists from the Universidad de Huamanga in Peru also assisted with the research.
Prior to this discovery, archaeologists had uncovered hundreds of ritually sacrificed llamas, as well as children, along the northern coast of Peru, but these were dated to the pre-Inca Chimú civilization (the Inca Empire vanquished the Chimú around 1475 CE). In an email, Valdez said the Inca were following something that had been practiced in the region long before they hit the scene.
“However, as in the case of the Chimú, the llamas are burial offerings,” explained Valdez. “In contrast, the llama offerings from Tambo Viejo are not burial offerings, but dedicatory offerings to the deities, namely to the creator god Viracocha and to the Sun.”
He said it took so long to find physical evidence of this practice among the Inca because only a few sites have been properly investigated and the few Inca centers that have been excavated are located in regions where preservations tend to be poor. At Tambo Viejo, which is situated along the southern coast of Peru, the conditions are very dry, allowing for the excellent preservation of organic remains. It also helped that the Inca placed sand over the llamas during burial.
The sacrifices at Tambo Viejo date back to a time shortly after the Inca conducted an amicable annexation of the region. The Empire converted Tambo Viejo and several other nearby localities into new administrative centers. Previous work at the same site by the same team uncovered dozens of ritually sacrificed guinea pigs, which were, like the llamas, adorned in colorful decorations.
The archaeologists found the four llamas beneath a floor while excavating a ruined structure. A fifth llama was also found, but it was badly degraded. Their adornments, made of camelid fiber (from llama or alpaca) suggest they were being offered to gods as special gifts. Previous work showed that brown llamas were sacrificed to the creator god Viracocha and white llamas to the Sun, the primary Inca deity. These llamas, therefore, “were very important offerings,” said Valdez.
“This is the first of its kind. There is nothing comparable,” said Valdez. “Now we know that Inka animal offerings were highly adorned.”
Close examination of the well-preserved llama remains revealed “no evidence of cuts to either the throat or the diaphragm, suggesting that the llamas could have been buried alive,” as the authors wrote in the study. What’s more, the “tying of the animals’ legs may also support this interpretation.” Grimly, if this is correct, it “would parallel the evidence for the burial of living human sacrifices” documented elsewhere. As a final gesture, the Inca placed tropical bird feathers atop the llamas’ graves.
Radiocarbon dating suggests the ritual occurred around 1447 CE, so approximately 573 years ago.
Spanish colonizers claimed that Inca ritual sacrifices were a plea for successful harvests, healthy herds, and victory against their enemies. The new paper points to a markedly different purpose: a gesture of goodwill to citizens living in a newly annexed territory.
Having recently arrived, the Inca likely upset the pre-existing sociocultural order of things, which the Inca attempted to assuage by “befriending the locals and providing gifts and food to the conquered peoples, while also acknowledging the local huacas [religious monuments] and gods,” wrote the authors, adding that the Inca “believed that it was not possible to take something without giving something back,” which implies that the “annexation of peoples and their lands required an exchange to normalise the otherwise abnormal situation.”
Interestingly, the feathers on the llama graves may have been a attempt by the Inca to further cement their ownership over the newly acquired territory, the authors speculate.
At the same site, the archaeologists also uncovered large ovens and other evidence of elaborate feasts. As Valdez points out, these ritual sacrifices weren’t morbid or dour events—they were celebrations involving the sharing of food in the form of feasts.
“I am convinced that the rituals that included the animal sacrifices included other actions, such as singing, dancing, and so on, that do not necessarily leave behind tangible material evidence for the archaeologists to recover,” he said.
Aleksa Alaica, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, said the authors “skillfully demonstrate how the interment of different coloured llamas in key architectural phases of Tambo Viejo facilitated the legitimization of Inka authority during important seasons of harvest and ceremonial events, but also how the use of potentially local llamas may have reinforced social memory.”
Continued investigations of the site could shed important light on Inca society as a whole, said Alaica, who’s not affiliated with the study.”
By obtaining fine-grained information on diet, disease and origin, the lived experiences of llamas used as ritual offerings will provide a better understanding for the human societies that were making these sacrifices,” she said.
As an interesting final aside, Valdez’s first impression of the Tambo Viejo site was that it was uninteresting. He said he ignored the site for the longest time, paying closer attention to earlier sites before finally deciding to investigate Tambo Viejo.
“I believe this was the right decision,” he said.
We wholeheartedly agree.
This article has been updated to include comments from Aleksa Alaica.