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Head of one of the sacrificed llamas. Note the colorful tassels on its ears. Image: L.M. Valdez /Antiquity Publications Ltd

First Naturally Mummified Inka Llama Sacrifices Found!

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Archaeologists working in Peru have unearthed the first known naturally mummified remains of Inka llama sacrifices. The animals are exceptionally well-preserved and still bear the decorations that were placed upon them in preparation for the ritual sacrifice to appease Inka deities over 500 years ago.

The Inka (Inca) people worshipped many deities and those beings were believed to have power over important aspects of life and the natural world, thus it was important to keep them happy. A new discovery at Tambo Viejo on the southern coast of Peru reveals one of the ways that the Inka accomplished this task – through ritual llama sacrifices. Several remarkably well-preserved llamas were found to have been presented as offerings to the Inka gods at the site.

Llama Sacrifices were Made to Suit the Deity

Llamas were the preferred sacrificial animals, but Dr. Lidio M. Valdez from the University of Calgary, lead author in the new study published in the journal Antiquity, told Ancient Origins that “There were guinea pigs, adorned just like the llamas, which were also found naturally mummified” at the site. Inka gaming paraphernalia was also found at Tambo Viejo, which Dr. Valdez says, “represent new findings for the Inka since nothing similar was found before.” But the stand out discovery is the “the llama offerings in an excellent state of preservation.”

Mummified sacrificial llamas found at Tambo Viejo, Peru. (L.M. Valdez /Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Mummified sacrificial llamas found at Tambo Viejo, Peru. (L.M. Valdez / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The discovery of the mummified llamas was made by Dr. Valdez and a team of archaeologists from the Universidad de Huamanga in Peru, who were excavating the Inka administrative center of Tambo Viejo, where the bones of hundreds of sacrificed llamas have already been found. The naturally mummified llamas were so well-preserved because “The Peruvian south coast is a desert environment that makes the preservation of any organic remains possible,” according to Dr. Valdez, who also gave Ancient Origins another remarkable example, “In 2006 I found a partially mummified human body that was decapitated, but her skin and some soft tissue, such as one of her breasts, was well preserved, Dr. Valdez said, concluding “Thus, the region is unique.”

The Inka kept llamas and alpacas for wool, hide, meat, fuel, and fertilizer, but the new paper reports that “llamas specifically were highly valued as beasts of burden.” These animals were obviously very important in the ancient Inka’s culture and Dr. Valdez explained to Ancient Origins that:

The Inka had thousands if not millions of them. Some belonged to the state and other to the Sun. Llamas belonging to the Sun (religion) were used for sacrifices during ceremonies. This type of gatherings took place following Inka ritual calendar and it is said that it was performed on a monthly basis. Dedicatory sacrifices, such as those from Tambo Viejo, were special gifts to the heavenly deities.”

Llama sacrifice involved more than just choosing any available animal. Dr. Valdez says that llamas were “regarded second only to humans in sacrificial value.” The Inka preferred to sacrifice young male llamas of uniform color and all of the llama offerings that have been excavated at Tambo Viejo were young individuals. Color was an important factor in choosing which llamas to sacrifice and this provides unique insight into which deities the Inka were focused on in the ceremonies.

Mandibles of a neonate white camelid found at the site. (L.M. Valdez /Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Mandibles of a neonate white camelid found at the site. (L.M. Valdez / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Brown llamas were sacrificed to the Creator God Viracocha and white llamas were offerings to Inti - the Sun God . Multicolored llamas were dedicated to the deity of thunder. Brown and white llamas were unearthed in the excavations at Tambo Viejo, which means that Inti and Viracocha were the intended recipients of the offerings. The researchers also gained insight on the reasons for the llama sacrifices by looking at the animals’ age at death.

Most of the sacrificed llamas at Tambo Viejo were either neonates or only a few months old. The Antiquity paper points out that domesticated llamas give birth “between the summer months of January and March”, which means that the llamas were sacrificed in the late summer or early autumn, which was the harvest period at Tambo Viejo. This means that the llama sacrifices could be linked to agricultural practices , which is supported by the writings of Spanish Conquistadors who noted that the Inka people would kill hundreds of llamas in attempts to guarantee successful harvests.

A Sign of the Inka Conquering Their Neighbors?

The Inka people also sacrificed animals with the hope that it would help them have healthy herds and be victorious in war. This leads us to examine the location where the llamas were sacrificed.

Tambo Viejo is located in the Acari Valley, which Dr. Valdez says was historically linked to a group of people known as the 'Hacaries' or 'Acaries'. “On the basis of archaeological evidence, it can be said that the local people lived in small settlements and were few that could not stop the Inka from entering into their homeland. Finally, they accepted a peaceful annexation .”

The date of the Inka conquest over the 'Hacaries' is believed to be around 1476 AD. However, radiocarbon dating results suggest that the llamas and guinea pigs were sacrificed at Tambo Viejo between 1432 and 1459 – showing they were in the area a little earlier than commonly believed. When this finding is accompanied by signs of feasting found at the site, it may mean that this is one example of how the Inka worked to peacefully conquer their neighbors.

Signs that the llama sacrifices may have been used as part of a feast or celebration to win over the locals living in the Acari Valley comes in the form of burnt animal bones, sweet potatoes, and large ovens. Dr. Valdez told Ancient Origins about these discoveries in more detail:

I found camelid (probably llama & alpaca) bones, some with signs of being exposed to fire. I also found partially burned sweet potatoes. In the region, peoples also cultivated other crops, such as manioc and achira, and those probable were also consumed. An important find at Tambo Viejo are the earth ovens that probably were used to bake the food in a style similar to what is known in more recent times in Peru as PACHAMANKA / PACHAMANCA. Pachamanka is prepared for especial occasions and is an easy way to feed large number of peoples.”

“The offerings likely were part of much larger feasts and gatherings, sponsored by the state,” said Dr. Valdez, adding “the state befriended the local people with food and drink, cementing political alliances, whilst placing offerings allowed the Inka to claim the land as theirs.”

Mummified Llamas Provide Unique Insight into Inka Sacrificial Ceremonies

Finally, the natural mummification of the animals at Tambo Viejo also provides valuable insight on the sacrificial practice itself. The Antiquity paper notes that historical accounts of llama sacrifices sometimes say the animals were killed by having their throats slit, their hearts removed, or by receiving blunt-force trauma to the head. However, the naturally mummified llamas found at Tambo Viejo show no signs of cuts and the researchers believe the animals were tied up then buried alive, similar to the Inka burial of living human sacrifices .

The amazing preservation of the animal remains also shows that the llamas that were selected for sacrifice at Tambo Viejo had been adorned with long, colorful strings made of camelid fibers. Red, green, yellow, and purple tassels were attached to the animals’ ears - a practice still seen in the region today. Matching necklaces were also placed around the animals’ necks.

The mummified llama sacrifices found at Tambo Viejo, Peru. Source: L.M. Valdez/Antiquity Publications Ltd

The mummified llama sacrifices found at Tambo Viejo, Peru. Source: L.M. Valdez/ Antiquity Publications Ltd

Three white llamas had red dots painted on top of their heads and a red line painted from each eye towards the nose. It is possible that the brown llamas were also painted, but the researchers couldn’t see the pigment on them. Once the decoration was complete, the llamas’ limbs were tied to their body with a long rope to hold them in a resting posture, and they were ready to be offered as special gifts to Viracocha and Inti.

A mummified white llama sacrifice. (L.M. Valdez /Antiquity Publications Ltd)

A mummified white llama sacrifice. (L.M. Valdez / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

At Viejo Tambo, the final step in the sacrifice was to add some guinea pig offerings, throw in a handful of black lima beans, and mark the graves with the orange feathers of tropical birds tied to sticks. Those feathers may have been yet another demonstration of the Inka’s authority over the land, according to the researchers, who wrote in their paper “Through these ceremonies, the Inka created new orders, new understandings and meanings that helped to legitimise and justify their actions to both the conquerors and the conquered.”

Unfortunately, the excavations at Tambo Viejo have been put on hold due to COVID-19, but Dr. Valdez told Ancient Origins that he and the team still have funds to continue work at the site as soon as they can return.

Orange feathers of tropical birds had been tied to one end of a wooden stick and placed as decorations for white llama sacrifices. (L.M. Valdez /Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Orange feathers of tropical birds had been tied to one end of a wooden stick and placed as decorations for white llama sacrifices. (L.M. Valdez / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The new paper is published in the journal Antiquity and the research project was made possible thanks to funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Top Image: Head of one of the sacrificed llamas. Note the colorful tassels on its ears. Image: L.M. Valdez / Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Alicia McDermott

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