Cut marks as evidence of Precolumbian human sacrifice and postmortem bone modification on the north coast of Peru

Laurel Anderson Hamilton
Dept. of Anthropology, Tulane University
July, 2005


This study uses macroscopic and microscopic techniques to analyze cut mark morphology and patterning on the bones of human sacrificial victims excavated from Moche (A.D. 100-800) sites on the north coast of Peru. This project represents the first in-depth investigation of the methods and tools used in perimortem and postmortem modification of human remains from the north coast of Peru and provides detailed comparisons of iconographic and skeletal evidence of trauma. The data sample consists of human bones from the Moche sites of Huaca de la Luna, El Brujo and Dos Cabezas, and three comparative samples composed of human bones from a Lambayeque (A.D. 800-1375) mass burial at Pacatnamu, butchered faunal remains, and human bones from a modern forensic case. Cut marks were recorded and analyzed using drawings, photographs, negative and positive casts, thin sections, a light microscope, a scanning electron microscope and a micro X- ray fluorescence spectrometer. Results indicate that the perimortem and postmortem treatment of the sacrificial victims at each site was regular and systematic and, depending on the site, included activities such as facial and genital mutilation, throat slitting, opening of the chest cavity, decapitation, defleshing and dismemberment. With few exceptions, all cut marks in my sample are morphologically similar and have features characteristic of metal tool use. It is likely that metal tumis, the crescent-bladed knives used to slit the throats and decapitate sacrificial victims in Moche and Lambayeque art, were used for the same purposes in real life. Although cut marks on human and faunal bones show similarities in their location and morphology, the human bones' lack of breakage and other evidence of consumption found in the butchered faunal remains argues against ritual cannibalism. Although there was some variation in the practice of human sacrifice within and between Moche sites and between the Moche and Lambayeque cultures, overall patterns suggest behavioral continuity through time. The many similarities between the physical evidence and the iconography strongly support the argument that Moche and Lambayeque artistic depictions of prisoner capture, torture, sacrifice and mutilation reflect actual practices.