Some 500 years ago, four elaborately adorned llamas looked out over a low, grassy plain in the Acari Valley near the southern coast of what is now Peru for the last time. The animals, whose mummified remains were found in 2018, were ritually sacrificed and buried beneath the floor of a building. Now, researchers think they know why: They were a “getting to know you” present from the Inca Empire to their recently conquered neighbors.
By the beginning of the 15th century, the Inca civilization was concentrated in the southern mountain stronghold of Cuzco. In the 1430s, the Inca began to expand their territory by annexing surrounding lands—often peacefully, but by force if necessary. Histories of the region recorded by Spanish colonists argue the Inca peacefully annexed the Acari Valley around this time.
To shore up their support with the locals, they might have sacrificed the llamas to local deities in the plaza of a site known as Tambo Viejo—three white llamas to the Sun god and one brown llama to the creator god—along with several guinea pigs, the researchers suspected. Llama sacrifice was a hallmark of the ancient Inca Empire—the animals were second only to human beings in terms of their value as sacrificial offerings.
Radiocarbon dating supported the theory: The llamas were likely killed between 1432 and 1459, the researchers report today in Antiquity. The lack of cut or stab wounds suggests they may have been buried alive, similar to some Inca human sacrifices. The ritual would likely have been accompanied by a huge banquet meant to cement a good relationship with the local people—good for the neighbors, but not for the llamas.