Archaeologists have unearthed the grisly evidence of what could be the largest mass child sacrifice event ever recorded.
After locals in 2011alerted experts of human remains found on a low bluff on the northern coast of Peru, an emergency dig at the site revealed dozens of ancient bodies belonging to human children and juvenile llamas.
Over the course of the next five years, archaeologists discovered hundreds more.
All in all, the excavations at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas uncovered more than 140 sets of child remains and 200 young llamas by 2016, according to an exclusive report from National Geographic – and, markings on their sternums and ribs suggest their chests were cut open and their hearts pulled out
Radiocarbon dating of rope and textiles found at the site suggests the ritual took place between 1400 and 1450 AD, according to National Geographic.
The experts say all of the children and animals sacrificed in the horrific ritual were killed with an efficient, ‘systematic’ cut across the chest.
Most of the children – both boys and girls – were between the ages of 8 and 12, though some were as old as 14.
The youngest were only about 5 years old.
While the children were buried facing westward, toward the sea, the llamas – all less than 18 months old – were buried facing the opposite way, toward the Andes, according to National Geographic.
Many of their faces were smeared with red pigment made from cinnabar.
The exhaustive, years-long investigation of the sacrifice site paints a gruesome picture of the events that unfolded roughly 550 years ago under the sprawling pre-Columbian ChimÃº Empire.
By analyzing ancient footprints found at the site, the experts say the children and llamas were likely led in a procession from the north and south, to converge on the center, National Geographic reports.
And, not all went willingly.
Amid the footprints of sandaled adults, dogs, barefoot children, and the young llamas, the researchers also found deep markings that suggest some of the animals resisted and were pulled forcibly.
Hundreds of years ago when the mass killing took place, the site was covered in a layer of mud – and, some of the bodies of both children and animals were simply left there instead of being buried in the prepared pits.
While it isn’t the first large-scale child sacrifice ever found, even the veteran archaeologists were shocked by the nightmarish scene they unearthed at the ancient ChimÃº site in Peru.
Previously, the largest recorded sacrificial event of this kind was seen at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of TenochtitlÃ¡n, where 42 children were killed.
"I, for one, never expected it," physical anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University told National Geographic of the gruesome discovery.
"And I don’t think anyone else would have, either."
While the ritual sacrifice of adults has been studied somewhat extensively, the ritual murder of children is a more difficult topic to tackle, the experts explain.
It’s impossible to know for sure why the children were slaughtered in this way, but experts say it may have been a last-ditch appeal to put an end to heavy rains and flooding.
Evidence of ancient mud at the site suggests northern Peru may have been subjected to severe weather driven by an El-NiÃ±o event, according to National Geographic.
The team is now conducting DNA and isotopic analyses on the remains to better understand the lives of the victims.