Excavations in Chan Chan, northern Peru, have uncovered a pre-Columbian mass grave.
The citadel of Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimú Empire, which controlled part of northern Peru from AD 900 until 1470, when it was defeated by the Incas. The site covers over 20km2 and is made up of a series of walled compounds. The latest discovery occurred during the fourth season of excavations at the Utzh An compound, in a raised section of the site.
The remains of 25 individuals were found in a 10m2 area and appear to belong mostly to young women, all under 30 years old, as well as a few teenagers and children. It has been suggested that they may have been members of the Chimú elite, but it is hoped that further investigations will reveal more about these people and their cause of death. Although the Chimú are known to have practised human sacrifice, lead archaeologist Jorge Meneses Bartra stresses that it is currently not possible to say whether this is the case here.
The grave appears to contain both primary and secondary burials, with some skeletons found in their original anatomical position, while others are disarticulated and display signs of bleaching, which suggest they had been exposed to the elements before burial. Archaeologists propose that perhaps there were two phases of use at the site: direct burials shortly after the individual’s death, in the initial stage when Utzh An was at its height; followed by a later phase when funerary remains were brought from somewhere else for deposition in the same graves as the first group of individuals. This discovery offers interesting new insight into the mortuary practices of the Chimú.
Some of the deceased were interred in a seated position with bent legs, wrapped in a layer of cotton followed by a second layer made of plant fibres. Many individuals were buried with objects associated with textile production, such as metal needles, wooden spindles, and callhuas (backstrap looms), reflecting the industry’s importance. Archaeologists also found c.49 ceramic vessels among the burials, and discovered that the grave appears to have been sealed with a mud mixture containing ceramic fragments, which may have functioned as a tomb marker.
Other burials have also been found in the western part of the site since 2020 and researchers expect to encounter more in the eastern sector during future excavations, leading to suggestions that the whole of this raised area could be a pre-Hispanic cemetery.