Professor Haagen Klaus revolves a ceramic pot in his hands depicting the gruesome Moche sacrificial process of throat slitting, dripping blood and ritual imbibing.
“Here is the sacrificial process in all of its brutal glory,” Klaus said. “ We aren’t sensationalizing ritual killing, but aiming to understand the people.”
In 2003 Klaus founded the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project which is a regional field bioarchaeology program. One of the sites under long-term investigation is Huaca Chotuna, a large archaelogical pyramid and ritual complex on the north coast of Peru dating from AD 900-1532.
While excavating one of the smaller pyramids on site in 2008, known as Huaca Norte, the mutilated remains of two very young women were found along with a child of unidentified sex. Klaus left shortly thereafter for his new teaching position at UVU, but subsequent excavations revealed 30 more bodies.
Asked to analyze the remains this past summer, Klaus embarked for Peru along with five of his UVU students. Joellen Perez and Joseph Luce acted as junior colleagues analyzing the skeletons. Sam Scholes served as project photographer, while Kat Phillpotts and Jerel Bartholomew were research assistants. The goal was to understand who these people were, how they died, and what it reveals about an unknown ancient belief system.
“We study a very wide range of complimentary but independent markers of human biology that are recorded in the bones and teeth,” Klaus said. “The human skeleton is the single most information-dense source of knowledge about the past.”
Among other methods being utilized, they are examining systemic stress which includes osteoarthritis related to physical activity and growth patterns.
“We can look at joints and patterns of arthritis related to physical activity and begin making discoveries about their economic structure,” Klaus said.
They can also learn about diet and nutritional habits through studying the isotopic chemistry of bones and teeth.
“We can look at patterns of oral health, which are very critical to understanding economic interaction in subsistence economies,” Klaus said. “You can literally look at a population’s teeth and reconstruct their economic history.”
Under a high degree of genetic control, the size and form of teeth can also shed light on the evolutionary histories of populations and genetic relationships between individual people.
Health and disease is another area that can be studied through testing of skeletal remains.
“We are able to reconstruct aspects of health and disease because when the body suffers from a chronic infection it can leave scars on the skeleton,” Klaus said.
Paleodemography may be approached from many different directions as well.
“We can look at things like migration because there is a regional signature to groundwater, and through the isotopic testing and comparing of teeth and bones, we are able to understand mobility,” Klaus noted.
These are only a few of the ways that they are beginning to piece together the vibrant history of these newly discovered people — the descendants of the Moche called Muchik.
Klaus and his colleagues have been able to identify these skeletons as sacrifice victims, due specifically to the fact that there are traumatic cut marks across the front of the cervical vertebrae.
“In order for a knife to contact that surface, it has to pass through all of the vital structures of the throat and muscles of the neck,” Klaus observed. The team’s hypothesis is that this was part of a blood sacrifice. Further observations have been made as well.
“They aren’t just slitting the throats but they are opening the chests, commonly on the left side. While opening the chest would allow them to collect more blood, we have discovered that they were removing the heart as well,” Klaus said.
According to the data they have gathered and the high levels of systemic stress apparent in most of the skeletons, they infer that these were a local people performing ritualistic sacrifices of their own people between the 13 and 16th centuries AD.
Haagen notices a fundamental linkage between blood and water as both being life-giving fluids.
“They were living in the world’s second driest desert, their civilization was based around water control. By offering blood to the ancestors, there is a lot of evidence that they were trying to stimulate rain though manipulation of powerful supernatural forces.”
Another fascinating area they will broach is that the victims consist mainly of children and adult women. They are planning to explore the cultural constructions of what it means to be female, and what it means to be a child in this particular society. In particular, children may not have been considered human, but instead closely related to powerful mountain spirits and ancestral beings.
One correlation they have made is in many cultures, the female represents fertility. They hypothesize that women were symbolically sacrificed to trigger rain to increase the fertility of their land.
“These are our initial working hypotheses,” Klaus said. “We are trying to uncover the cultural meanings, the cosmology, the political structures and the economic relationships between these people. We hope to discover further perspectives as we continue our analysis.”