Archaeologists are Stumped: Why were Ancient Shark Hunters in Peru Buried with Extra Limbs?
Archaeologists in Peru have unearthed a rather perplexing burial site dating back 1,900 years, in which the ancient inhabitants of a fishing village were buried with bonus body parts, including one shark hunter who was buried with two extra left legs.
Last month, Ancient Origins reported on the discovery of the remains of 54 individuals buried in 47 Pre-Inca tombs at the Lomas La Cruz site in Huanchaco, Trujillo, Peru, along with more than 100 artifacts found alongside the bodies. Images presented on Telesur showed that several of the objects are ceramics with maritime themes, coastal animals, and geometric shapes – reflecting the connection the ancient cultures felt with the sea. RPP states that the site was used by the Chimú (1200 BC – 400 AD), Salinar (400 BC – 300 AD), Virú (150 BC – 500 AD), and Moche cultures (100 – 700 AD).
The National Geographic has now revealed that out of the 54 burials, around 30 of them include additional human limbs – usually arms or legs. In one case, an adult, believed to be a shark hunter based on the artifacts found in his grave, was found with two additional left legs placed beside his body.
Victor Campaña, current director of the Las Lomas Rescue Project told National Geographic that the individuals buried with additional limbs were more likely to show signs of trauma, including cut marks to their bones and evidence of blunt-force trauma.
Excavating one of the Pre-Inca tombs. Source: Johnny Aurazo
A Village of Fishermen
Although the archaeological site is associated with different cultures, including the Chimú, Salinar, Virú, and Moche cultures, researchers believe that the graves with additional limbs belong to the little-known Virú culture, a pre-Inca culture that flourished at the Virú Valley on the north-west coast of Peru.
Grave goods found in the burials suggest that many of the inhabitants of the small coastal settlement were fishermen and may have been particularly skilled at catching sharks. In one grave, researchers found a 4-inch-long copper fish hook wrapped in gold foil.
“The size of the hook is appropriate for snaring large fish and sharks, a practice with a very long tradition in this northern Peruvian coastal region,” reports National Geographic.
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Moche sculptural stirrup spout bottle showing a man riding a shark (100 – 800 AD). Credit: Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú
Ancient Tradition of Shark Hunting
Previous excavations in coastal areas of Peru have revealed that the tradition of shark hunting in the region goes back at least 4,000 years. In 2010, archaeologists discovered a 3,500-year-old temple used by shark hunters in a small village near Huanchaquito, where they carried out ritual ceremonies.
The remains of fish bones in dwellings has shown that the most abundant meat eaten by the villagers came from blue shark, sand shark, and stingray. These three species are also the ones which are represented most frequently in ritual caches. For example, excavations uncovered a ritual offering of a sand shark placed upon a reed mat in one dwelling, and an offering of ground shells covered with a sea lion bone wrapped with a portion of sand shark vertebrae in another dwelling. Human burials have also been found with shark remains, as well as other marine offerings.
The archaeologist that led that excavation, Gabriel Prieto, suggested that the reasons for using marine products as offerings could have been related to the need to maintain ocean productivity and to satisfy the gods who possibly ruled this productivity.
“I would like to suggest that early fishermen used their most valuable sources of food as offerings. It is also possible to argue that in fact, they considered sacred these marine species; probably as part of a marine cosmos which was exploited to satisfy their subsistence and spiritual necessities,” wrote Prieto in his paper published in 2010.
Left: Sea lion femur and blue shark vertebrae. Right: Shark tooth found with burial (Prieto, 2010)
The Strange Case of Added Limbs
Prieto has said that the discovery of burials containing extra body parts is unique to the Virú culture. The only other known example was found in the early 2000s at El Castillo Santa, south of Trujillo, where researchers found a small number of skeletons with extra limbs at another Virú grave site.
“At this time, the archaeologists can only speculate about the motivation behind the unusual Virú burials,” reports National Geographic. “One suggestion is that the extra limbs may have served as a sacrificial offering to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Additional lab work will determine if there was any sort of relation between the individuals buried and the owners of the additional body parts.”
Top image: Ancient remains of a Peruvian shark fisherman, who was buried with two additional left legs. Photo Credit: Gabriel Prieto / National Geographic.