Mysterious Skeletons Bearing Horrific Injuries Show Early Ritual Violence in the Andes

The ritual site at Pacopampa, Peru. Ancient societies may have participated in ritual violence here. Josef73

A team of archaeologists has uncovered early evidence of ritual violence in Peru's northern highlands, providing new clues to what lay behind the development of bloody ceremonial mutilation in ancient Andean civilisation.

According to an article published in the journal Plos One, archaeologists examined the remains of 104 individuals from a site called Pacopampa, a place home to "impressively large, ceremonial architecture," that may have played host to "a complex society founded on ritual activity."

Seven of the people showed signs of trauma; and while those buried at Pacopampa were from both elite and commoner classes, all those with evidence of trauma were probably from lower castes.

Analysis of their injuries showed a large proportion of the trauma was sustained by blows to the head and face, rather than the hands and feet. So while the mountainous environment would have been a potentially dangerous place to live, the researchers argue, it is likely that many of the injuries were intentional.

What's more, while many of the injuries were severe—some so severe they could have caused debilitating lifelong health problems—they healed over and were probably experienced before death.

It's not certain what the reason for this ritual violence would have been. But the researchers put forward some possible explanations.

For example, the archaeologists posit, there may have been too much demand for limited food resources in the mountains around the area. "Signs of violence are possible evidence of increasing social tensions caused by this," the researchers said.

But, they added, the bodies studied were well-fed and had adequate nutrition. The violence may be the result of "rituals associated with food and water productions," the researchers wrote. "The controlled practice of violence," they add, "seems to have an affinity with the cult of predatory animals" present in society at the time: The elite may have exercised damage on others to embody powerful predators.

The remains dated from the Middle to Late Formative Periods, between 1200 and 500 BC.