More than a decade ago, Mel Gibson came out with “Apocalypto,” a movie about the bloody pre-Columbian civilizations on our side of the Atlantic. And two months ago, the February issue of National Geographic had a story about a new archeological site — Huanchaquito-Las Llamas — in Peru that bore out the movie’s thesis that Mesoamerica and South America alike were charnel houses of human sacrifice.
More on Gibson in a moment. The National Geographic piece showed that some time in the past few hundred years, a society had carried out a mass orgy of child sacrifices early in the 15th century. The question, of course, is this: What did these rites have to do with religion and faith? We will get to that.
The text from this piece has only gone online recently, hence my delay in posting commentary about it.
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.
The first thing to appear is the crest of a child’s skull, topped with a thatch of black hair. Switching from trowels to paintbrushes, the excavators carefully sweep away the loose sand, exposing the rest of the skull and revealing skeletal shoulders poking through a coarse cotton shroud. Eventually the remains of a tiny, golden-furred llama come into view, curled alongside the child.
The grim count from this and a second sacrifice site nearby will ultimately add up to 269 children between the ages of five and 14 and three adults. All of the victims perished more than 500 years ago in carefully orchestrated acts of ritual sacrifice that may be unprecedented in world history. …
The Old Testament chronicled child sacrifice, the article says, although the writers didn’t add that God thoroughly detested the practice. Tiny detail, there.
Other than the sacrifice of virgin girls in Minoan Crete to appease demons, the Eastern hemisphere had comparatively little of it compared to the blood baths in the West.
Until the discovery at Huanchaquito (pronounced wan-cha-KEE-toe), the largest known child sacrifice site in the Americas—and possibly the entire world—was at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City), where 42 children were slain in the 15th century.
… many were buried alongside very young llamas and possibly alpacas. As vital sources of food, fiber, and transport, these Andean animals were among the Chimú’s most valuable assets. And finally there was this: Many of the children and animals had visible cut marks across their sternum and ribs.
These were ritual killings followed by the dislocation of the children’s ribs and the removal of their hearts. The baby llamas had the same fate.
Horrible, I know. Archeologists know little about the Chimú, who were vanquished in the 1470s by the Incas who themselves were conquered some 60 years later by the Spanish.
So why did this take place? Some say there were floods that were wiping out the crops.
A severe El Niño, the researchers theorize, may have shaken the political and economic stability of the Chimú kingdom. Its priests and leaders may have ordered the mass sacrifice in a desperate attempt to persuade the gods to stop the rain and the chaos.
“This number of children, this number of animals—it would have been a massive investment on behalf of the state,” Prieto says.
Jane Eva Baxter, an anthropology professor at DePaul University who specializes in the history of children and childhood, agrees that the Chimú may have considered their children among the most valuable offerings they could present to the gods.
What sort of gods would approve this? The article doesn’t come up with a specific religion.
Haagen Klaus, a professor of anthropology at George Mason University, points out that child sacrifice became more common in the region after the fall of the Moche (the culture that preceded the Chimú) in the ninth century. The Moche sacrificed large numbers of captive adult warriors at their Temple of the Moon, just a few miles and a few centuries distant from where the Chimú later ruled at Chan Chan.
“With the end of the Moche, the ideas got old, and the rituals lost their potency,” Klaus says. “There seems to be something much bigger that the people at Chan Chan got plugged into. Sacrifices are very carefully constructed negotiations and forms of communication with the supernatural. It’s the Chimú interacting with the cosmos as they understood it.”
Just trying to reconstruct that awful scene in my mind is nearly impossible. The call for children to be sacrificed went out all over the Chimú kingdom. What must these kids have been thinking as they were taken to the sacrificial site? Were they drugged?
I began reading around to see if anyone had a better idea of what deities the Chimú were appeasing.
Business Insider had the best guess: Angry weather gods. Business Insider then interview Kristin Romey, archeological editor for National Geographic.
Child sacrifice in the archaeological record is rare because it doesn't make a lot of economic sense, Romey said.
"For most of human history, making it past the age or five or so was a big thing. It took a lot of effort and luck. So why would a society wipe out a part of their population that they had already spent so many resources on to just to survive past birth, only to get rid of them before they were old enough to work, fight, or reproduce?" …
"There are arguments that the children were considered liminal — they weren't full-fledged people yet and as such could communicate better with the spiritual world," Romey said.
With no written records, it’s hard to get inside the heads of a society that would do such a brutal, awful, act. And it was so futile. The coming Inca invasion overran the Chimú.
I looked up child sacrifice in pre-Columbian cultures because the Chimú no doubt mirrored their neighbors. The Mesoamericans –- now Mexicans –- were exceptionally bloody and the cruel ways they killed their offspring makes for some ghastly reading. The Mayans sacrificed children to appease the gods, as did the Aztecs, who believed their god Tlaloc demanded 6-year-old boys to be sacrificed before the rains would come.
The early Spanish explorers and the Franciscan missionaries who came with them saw a lot of this going on and that idea is explored in “Apocalypto.” The climatic scene (shown in the above video) shows the hero, Jaguar Paw, being pursued by two enemies and only minutes from death when the trio stumbles on a beach where a Spanish expedition is just landing. The landing party includes someone bearing a crucifix; Gibson’s way of saying that a new religion would supersede the old gods.
The movie has been criticized for getting a lot of its history wrong, but I’m not going to wade into that debate here. MTV.com touched on the religion angle with an interview with Gibson.
Loder: Do you think the Mayan culture was even more violent than you've depicted it in "Apocalypto"?
Gibson: Absolutely. Some of the stuff they did was unspeakable. You could not put it on film. I really did go light. There are accounts of when the conquistadors first arrived in the Aztec empire and saw something like 20,000 human sacrifices in four days. They must have had four or five temples going at the same time. All these hearts being ripped out — it was a kind of culture of death. Human sacrifice wasn't as prevalent in the Mayan civilization as in the Aztec. But with conquest and the melding of cultures, it became more commonly practiced further south.
Loder: At the end of "Apocalypto," the first Spanish explorers arrive in the Mayan empire, and they're carrying a large cross. I know you're Catholic: What do you think was the effect of Christianity on these pagan cultures?
Gibson: Well, there were only a few hundred conquistadors, and their weaponry wasn't that far superior. The Mayans could pierce their armor — these cleavers that they had could cut a side of beef in half. So how did the conquistadors take power? I think that the majority of the populace was really discontented with what was going on. They didn't dig it. Twenty-thousand people being bumped off? It was like, who's next? And they began to rebel. I think the conquistadors led more of a revolution with the help of the people.
So, if we know the specific gods that these early Central and South Americans worshipped, it seems odd that whatever the Chimú had is loosely attributed to “weather gods.” This article identifies three Chimú gods by name. The true answer is obviously something much more bloodthirsty. The Incas definitely had human sacrifices and a definite sun god and a god of wind and rain and the Chimú were like them.
Without the specifics of which god commanded the child sacrifices, the National Geographic piece remains a bit sterile, as if not wanting to offend present-day folks with reminders of how dire pre-Columbian paganism really was. (Google “Inca + child + sacrifice”, then click on “images” if you want to see how brutal it was).
I am convinced the details about Chimú religious rules on child sacrifice are out there but what I’m seeing is a pullback for PC reasons. If a religion drives people to sacrifice their kids, let’s get the full details of it. Maybe Mel Gibson wasn’t far from the truth, after all.