Human sacrifice: how did becoming part of the Inca empire change things?

HUACA CHOTUNA 005AI was looking through the May issue of American Journal of Physical Anthropology, when I came across an intriguing title: The variable roads to sacrifice: Isotopic investigations of human remains from Chotuna-Huaca de los Sacrificios, Lambayeque, Peru. Even better, when I glanced at who wrote it, I learned that it was a former lab-mate of mine, Beth Turner!

Human sacrifice was practiced in some pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes. But the nature of human sacrifice varied based on time and place.  Early on, in the Moche culture of Northern Peru, the victim was typically dispatched by throat-slitting, and later on chest mutilation (evidently to remove the heart) became important too. Usually, the victims were youngish-to-middle aged adult males who were probably warriors. Whether they were foreign or local is a matter of some debate. On the one hand, some researchers believe that features of their teeth suggest that they were from some other location. This, paired with the fact that a lot of them had what appeared to be battle injuries, led them to believe that they could be war captives. On the other hand, analyses of things like mtDNA, archaeological context, and stable oxygen isotope values indicated that the victims WERE local, and the Moche were sacrificing one another.

Whether the Moche victims were local or not, it’s clear that the Inca culture, which rose to power later in the South Central highlands, did things differently. They focused on juveniles and young adult female victims. They also drew their victims from other locations–apparently, being especially beautiful could make you a prime target, and having someone chosen from your community could be viewed as a sort of honor by subject groups. Once selected, victims were celebrated at ceremonial rituals and feasts in Cusco before being sent to the sacrifice. By measuring stable isotopes in their remains, researchers can actually detect a shift from a commoners’ diet (prior to being selected as a victim) to an elite diet. And this change in diet sometimes started as much as a year before death. Even if it was viewed as an honor, it doesn’t seem like the awareness that you are being fattened up–like Hansel in the fairy tale, only for much longer–could have been very pleasant.

Turner and colleagues got the opportunity to study human sacrifice at Lambayeque, an important political/religious site in northern coastal Peru. This site is particularly interesting, because during the period they studied, different cultures were meeting there. The Inca had recently gained control. The remains of 33 sacrificial victims were unearthed from this period (they’re shown in the picture above, taken by Miguel Mejia), and they were unusual for this area in that they were primarily young and female. This emphasis seemed Inca-like. Other features of their sacrifice seemed Moche-like, though. They exhibited a variety of traumatic injuries that included throat slitting and chest opening. And evidence of flies around the remains of the victims suggested that their bodies were allowed to decompose/dessicate for about a month prior to being interred (also normal for Northern Peru). So what was going on here? Did the emphasis on young and female victims indicate that the Inca takeover changed the way that sacrifice was performed? If so, did that mean that Lambayeque began to draw its victims from other places, preparing them ahead of time for the sacrifice?

In order to answer these questions, Turner took rib samples and, where possible, hair samples from the remains and used them to perform stable isotope analysis. Their results suggested that the individuals had eaten a varied but typical coastal diet. Unlike the typical Inca victims, there was no evidence that their diet changed significantly prior to the time of death. There was also no indication that the Lambayeque victims came from anywhere but in the region. Given the stable isotope data, Turner and colleagues hypothesized that even though the site was under Inca rule, many local sacrificial customs may have remained in place. The individuals selected for sacrifice may have reflected Inca ideas about ideal victims, but the method of killing (throat slitting and chest opening), as well as the way that the bodies were treated after death, had deep roots in the area. And, in Lambayeque, it doesn’t appear that the victims were chosen from a distant locale and prepared for sacrifice a year ahead of time, Inca-style.

I think we’re all used to reading about how the confluence of cultures has affected daily life in different locations. But I’d never thought about how the logistics of something like human sacrifice would be affected by being absorbed into an empire. This was a gruesome but very interesting read!