What made this ancient society sacrifice its own children?

Some 500 years ago, the Chimú in what is now Peru ritually killed hundreds of their young in the largest mass child sacrifice events known in world history. Now archaeologists are trying to understand why.

A headdress of macaw feathers adorns the skull of a sacrificed child who had shoulder-length hair. Researchers say the headdress indicates the youth may have been from an elite family.
Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF

The young victim lies in a shallow grave in a vacant lot strewn with trash. It’s the Friday before Easter here in Huanchaquito, a hamlet on the north coast of Peru.

The throb of dance music, drifting up from seaside cafés a few hundred yards to the west, sounds eerily like a pulsing heart. It’s accompanied by the soft chuf, chuf of shovels as workers clear away broken glass, plastic bottles, and spent shotgun shells to reveal the outline of a tiny burial pit cut into an ancient layer of mud.

Two college students—archaeologists in training, wearing hospital scrubs and masks—splay on their stomachs on either side of the grave and begin digging with trowels.

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