Human remains provide evidence of early ritualistic violence in Ancient Andean Societies

Blunt force injuries on human remains recently discovered in Peru provide the earliest evidence for ritualistic violence in the Americas to date, reports The Asahi Shimbun. The fact that the trauma was low level and showed signs of healing leads scholars to believe that the injuries weren’t designed to kill. Their findings were published earlier this month in the journal PLOS One.

The discovery was made by a Peruvian-Japanese excavation team, who weredigging in Pacopampa in the northern highlands of Peru. Thousands of years ago, the site was home to an ancient Andean civilization built on ritualistic practice and socioeconomic inequality.

The archeologists unearthed a total of 104 bodies from the 13th to 6th centuries BCE. Of these, seven displayed traces of low-level trauma, such as fractures to the skull, facial features, and limbs. One skeleton, belonging to a 35- to 54-year-old woman, also showed signs of a dislocated elbow joint.

Nagaoka T, Uzawa K, Seki Y, Morales Chocano D (2017)/PLOS ONE

The individuals would have been attacked repeatedly with blunt tools and fists, the researchers say, as part of a ritualistic practice.

“Given the archaeological context (the remains were recovered from sites of ceremonial practices), as well as the equal distribution of trauma among both sexes and a lack of defensive architecture [in Pacopampa], it is plausible that rituals, rather than organized warfare or raids, caused most of the exhibited trauma,” the researchers explained.

Interestingly, all the injuries show signs of healing, which suggests that the violence wasn’t intended to be lethal and the victims did not die as a result. Instead, it was only meant to harm the individual. This is unusual because we expect ritualistic sacrifice to end in death – as was certainly the case in later eras.

“The elites’ role may not yet have been established in the nascent hierarchical society at Pacopampa and that violence in a ritual context may therefore not necessarily have produced the same results,” said the researchers.

The paper also refers to the civilization’s “affinity with the cult of predatory animals”. During this period, predators – and big cats, in particular – were a key religious icon, and anthropomorphized images were incorporated into pottery and sculptures.

“[W]e can suspect that these figures may have exercised fierce forces on victims in ritual practices,” the researchers explained. “If we apply this explanation, we see that 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.”