Archaeologists discovered the remains of more than 140 children in Peru, children who they believe were sacrificed because of heavy rains.

Their skeletons were found on an excavated site formally known as Huanchaquito-Las Llamas — ground that was controlled by the Chimú Empire some 550 years ago, reported National Geographic in an exclusive published on Thursday.

Researchers believe that both boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 were killed by expert hands. The victims appear to be from different ethnic groups and were brought to the bluff from faraway places in the Chimús' vast empire.

Peruvian archaeologist Gabriel Prieto, who grew up in the area, was excavating an ancient temple there in 2011 when people who lived near coastal dunes told him they were seeing bones.

"We started the excavation the same day," Prieto told NPR from Peru. "I remember in the first hour or two hours we found like 12 or 13 complete bodies and from there we knew we were in an important site and that we had to call other archaeologists because it was beyond our possibilities at the moment."

Prieto, a National Geographic Explorer and professor, said his work there resumed in 2014 with grants from the National Geographic Society. He and John Verano, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, led the research.

They found that these were no ordinary remains. Many of the children had faces that were caked with red pigment, sternums with cuts and ribs that had been dislocated — suggesting that their hearts had been removed. The researchers also found the remains of 200 juvenile llamas that also appear to have died in ritual killings.

Footprints of barefoot children, adults in sandals, young llamas and dogs have led the researchers to construct a theory of their demise. And it's rooted in a layer of dried mud at the eastern part of the 7,500-square-foot excavation site.

The researchers believe that heavy rains and flooding caused by El Niño weather patterns prompted the massive sacrifice. It would have had devastating consequences on Chimú infrastructure, which was built for arid conditions and featured a network of canals.

Prieto said the damage would ultimately have threatened those in power. "Anything that would affect their economic or political stability, they would take advantage of whatever resources they had possibly to control this kind of situation."

The discovery has left archaeologists captivated. Vanderbilt University anthropology professor Tom Dillehay, who has not worked on the project, told NPR that the Andes has a legacy of human sacrifice but "not at this intensity or scale."

He said that the children appear to have died as a sacrifice, as researchers concluded. "There is no other explanation for the accumulation of so many children," said Dillehay. "You could relate it to warfare and perhaps gathering up children — but why sacrifice so many animals as well?"

But he is skeptical of what prompted their death, saying that many archaeologists and geologists are "trigger happy," often blaming El Niño as the cause of catastrophes. "I think we need to be more cautious, unless they have solid geological evidence," he said, adding that the mud could indicate there was, say, a tsunami. "If a highly localized event such as El Niño impacted the community, then why do you need to stretch out several hundred miles to bring children in?"

Jonathan Haas, curator emeritus at The Field Museum, disagreed. "The layer of mud indicates that it's raining. And it never rains in the coast of Peru except during fairly traumatic El Niño events," he told NPR from Peru. Because the infrastructure was built for an arid region, "when it rains, it wipes out the entire agricultural system."

Haas also noted that the sheer number of sacrificed children shows that this ancient society wasn't benevolent. "It goes to show the power the rulers had to take children away from their parents and kill them. That's a lot of state power."

Prieto said the researchers will continue to learn about the victims through DNA and biological analysis. They will submit a report about the discovery to a peer-reviewed, scientific journal, reported National Geographic.

The discovery offers a new insight into Peru's history apart from the geoglyphs of Nazca Lines and the Inca culture represented at Machu Picchu, Prieto said. "Facing all these human remains and llama remains in very fragile conditions, surrounded by modern houses, it was really a feeling of responsibility that we were facing something important — that we need to record it in the best way possible to finally tell this story."

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