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25 Elite Skeletons Unearthed From Chan Chan Mass Grave, Peru

Archaeologists exploring the ancient Peruvian city of Chan Chan have uncovered the skeletal remains of 25 people in one medium-sized burial site. The men, women, and children interred there would have belonged to Peru’s legendary Chimú people, who built a sophisticated civilization that endured for more than five centuries before giving way to the Inca.

The Chan Chan burial site may or may not have been reserved for the members of one specific family (DNA testing will be needed to see if the people in the grave were related). Notably, none of these individuals were more than 30 years old at the time of their deaths, project archaeologist Sinthya Cueva told Reuters News Agency.

The archaeological zone where the elite Chan Chan mass grave was recently discovered. (Jim Williams / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The archaeological zone where the elite Chan Chan mass grave was recently discovered. (Jim Williams / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

An Elite Chan Chan Mass Grave Revealed

Working under the auspices of the Chan Chan Archaeological Research Program, an initiative sponsored by Peru’s Ministry of Culture, the archaeologists found the Chimú remains in a 107-square-foot (10-square-meter) grave that had been dug inside a raised area in the Utzh An (Great Chimú) walled complex. They were surprised to find the grave in this location, since it is believed to have functioned as a palace occupied by aristocrats and Chimú leaders.

“Most of them (the remains) belonged to women under 30 who were buried with objects used in textile activities, a couple of children, and a couple of teenagers,” Jorge Meneses, the leader of most recent Chan Chan excavation, told the Peru News Agency – ANDINA. “It is a very specific population, not too young considering the average human lifespan was 40 years.”

The archaeologists found the grave while digging near the palace complex’s southern wall. The small burial chamber featured two levels of embankment, and overall there were approximately 70 vessels  and related items found that would have been used in textile work.

While individual Chimú people may not have lived long, the ages of the people in the grave still suggests that most did not die of natural causes. This has led to some speculation that they might have been victims of human sacrifice.

Meneses rejects this theory. Like many ancient South American and Mesoamerican cultures, the Chimú did practice human sacrifice to some extent. But these skeletal remains contain no marks consistent with a violent death, as would be expected if they’d been killed during a sacrificial ceremony.

Based on the unusual location in which the skeletons were found, the archaeologists believe the small burial site was likely reserved as a resting spot for members of elite Chimú families (or perhaps one elite family).

A closeup of the elite Chan Chan mass grave burial site recently discovered in Peru. (Screen shot / Peru News Agency - ANDINA)

A closeup of the elite Chan Chan mass grave burial site recently discovered in Peru. (Screen shot / Peru News Agency – ANDINA)

Archaeologists Wonder, How Did These People Die?

Testing will need to be carried out to determine how the people in the grave died. But the archaeologists were able to gain some insight into the possibilities by examining the state of the various skeletal remains.

According to Jorge Meneses, the position of one of the skeletons indicated that it had been buried very shortly after the person’s death.

This skeleton was largely intact and generally well-preserved. However, the bones around it were bleached and in some cases had been mixed together. This suggested they’d been exposed to the elements for a while at some point, before being added to the grave at presumably the same time.

Were these unfortunate individuals all killed at the same time during a natural disaster or act of warfare? The bodies might have been recovered months or even years after the event that cost them their lives, which would explain why their bones were sun damaged. They may also have been washed out of a previous grave by a flood and placed into the other grave after their bones had been found.

Even though there was some mixing of the bones, some effort was made to put the skeletons back together. The bodies were found wrapped in fabric and had been placed in a sitting position. This showed that the Chimú did take some care when burying their dead, Sinthya Cueva pointed out, perhaps in preparation for their entrance into the next world.

A camelid fiber and cotton Chimú tapestry shirt from 1400–1540 AD. (Unknown Chimu weaver / Public domain)

A camelid fiber and cotton Chimú tapestry shirt from 1400–1540 AD. (Unknown Chimu weaver / Public domain)

The Chimú Kingdom Preceded and Influenced the Incas

Chan Chan was the capital of Chimor, the name for the Chimú kingdom that ruled the region in the pre-Incan era. The city was built around 850 AD along Peru’s northern seacoast, at a site not far from the modern-day city of Trujillo.

While lifeless and deserted now, Chan Chan is recognized as one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas. It features 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) of ancient ruins left behind by the people of the kingdom of Chimor, which emerged around 900 AD and lasted until 1470 AD, when it was conquered by invading Incan armies.

Scientists and tourists who come to Chan Chan can explore the remains of ancient pyramid temples and sprawling palaces, walk down wide city boulevards, or visit the site of impressively constructed reservoirs, all of which were constructed from adobe mud brick.

Chan Chan carried the distinction of being the most populated city in pre-Columbian South America. Somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people lived there during its peak population period. The city was the crown jewel of the Chimú civilization and the kingdom of Chimor, the latter of which spanned more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) of Peru’s coastline at its peak of territorial expansion.

Chimor was built largely through conquest, as the Chimú absorbed their neighbors into their burgeoning empire by force. The kingdom experienced its biggest burst in population in the first half of the 14th century, and it was at this time that the Chimú began constructing new cities and large-scale irrigation systems to make sure crop growth could be expanded to meet the needs of its people.

Chimú society was highly divided between rich and poor. A wealthy and powerful elite ruled the kingdom from walled complexes, including the Utzh An complex, inside the city of Chan Chan. Most of the ambitious building projects they undertook were ordered by and funded by the state, which had the control necessary to deploy masses of workers however they saw fit.

The Incas defeated the Chimú kingdom and overthrew its leaders in a military campaign that lasted from 1465 to 1470 AD. But the Incas adopted many elements of the Chimú political system and copied their methods for building roads, cities, and irrigation systems.

A panel from Peru’s Chan Chan archaeological site depicting unusual characters. (MacAllen Brothers / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A panel from Peru’s Chan Chan archaeological site depicting unusual characters. (MacAllen Brothers / CC BY-SA 2.0)

More Finds are Expected in Chan Chan

Chan Chan Archaeological Research Program excavations in coming seasons will focus on the same area that produced the most recently discovered burial site.

“This [the freshly-excavated gravesite] is something new to us because, in spite of this, we are finding individuals and not simple ones, but of a more relevant category due to the amount of objects placed with them as an offering,” Cueva said, highlighting the apparent elite nature of the burials. “We may be walking over more remains.”

Cueva, who is the Ministry of Culture´s chief representative in the Chan Chan Archaeological Research Program, thinks that she and her fellow archaeologists have discovered a large-scale ancient cemetery that would have been used exclusively in the pre-Columbian era.

“We have found several individuals in the western part (of the site) since 2020, and we expect to continue to do so across the eastern sector in the coming seasons,” she said.