Two burials of individuals with signs of trauma found at Pacopampa, Peru.

Peruvian Oracles Threw Stones and Clubs at Commoners in Acts of Ritual Violence

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Healed over fractured skulls and limbs and a dislocated elbow – these are signs that archaeologists are interpreting as evidence of ritual violence having taken place in Peru about 3,200 years ago. It is suggested that the brutal acts were committed in relation to a predatory animal cult – with elites embodying predators and wounding others in practices aimed at securing food and water for their society.

According to the Asahi Shimbun , a research team studied the remains of 104 individuals found at the Pacopampa archaeological site in Peru’s northern highlands. What they discovered has been labeled as one of the earliest examples of ritual violence in the Americas.

Human remains bear signs of trauma in Pacopampa, Peru.

Human remains bear signs of trauma in Pacopampa, Peru. ( The archaeological research team of Pacopampa )

In their article in the journal Plos One , the study’s authors write that the traumas occurred in the Middle  (1200-800 BC) to Late Formative Period (800-500 BC), coinciding with an emergence of social stratification in the region. More severe violence took place in the later period, but it was evident throughout.

Evidence of severe trauma was found on seven skeletons. All the victims were over the age of 35, but none seemed to have died from their wounds. Both males and females had been harmed. Fractured skulls, facial and limb fractures, and a dislocated elbow joint comprised the injuries sustained. But these were not war wounds; in fact, it appears that most of the severe bone fractures had healed.

Burials of individuals with trauma.

Burials of individuals with trauma. ( Nagaoka et al. )

No signs of malnutrition were found in their remains, but the absence of luxury burial goods, pigments on the human remains, and artificial cranial deformations suggests that all seven of the individuals exhibiting trauma were commoners. Elite burials were also found at the site, but the researchers say none of the skeletons showed signs of trauma.

The researchers believe that the people had been repeatedly assaulted with blunt instruments. Yuji Seki, head of the Japan-Peru joint investigation team provided a possible interpretation for the wounds:

“Ancient records show that elite groups fought each other to ward off disaster and pray for good harvests. These elite groups, such as oracles, might have repeatedly taken part in combat by throwing stones and using clubs.”

As mentioned by the IB Times UK , the researchers believe the people who had inflicted the wounds didn’t want to kill their victims. A lack of defensive injuries also suggests that the damage occurred under controlled conditions.

Depressed skull fractures found on the remains of seven individuals at Pacopampa, Peru.

Depressed skull fractures found on the remains of seven individuals at Pacopampa, Peru . ( Nagaoka et al. )

As a possible explanation, the researchers propose the acts were linked to a predatory animal cult. This type of cult was present in the surrounding area at the time and “anthropomorphized creatures were also found on pottery, stone sculpture, and wall relief at Pacopampa; we can suspect that these figures may have exercised fierce forces on victims in ritual practices.”

They continue :

“[…] violence in a ritual context may have contributed to the dominance over the people by an elite class. Violence may have become an element of ritual activity and the basis for social development, particularly where it was incorporated into rituals by taking on a new meaning of sacredness in ritual places.”

Feline-like head. National Museum Chavin de Huantar, Peru

Feline-like head. National Museum Chavin de Huantar, Peru ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

As Pacopampa shows no sign of fortifications, it seems the people living there didn’t fear outside attacks. Ceremonial architecture and artifacts that have been linked to rituals have been found at the site, as well as a subterranean canal system. The researchers believe the waterway may have played a role in water and agricultural ceremonies. Several artifacts not pertaining to the region have also been found through excavations. The researchers describe the site as such:

“Pacopampa was home to a complex society founded on ritual activity in a ceremonial center: this is indicated by the presence of ritual violence in a society that built impressively large, ceremonial architecture and developed social stratification without any political control of surplus agricultural goods.”

San Pedro-Pacopampa, Peru.

San Pedro-Pacopampa, Peru. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Top Image: Two burials of individuals with signs of trauma found at Pacopampa, Peru. Source: Nagaoka et al.

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