An intriguing new discovery in Peru shows ritually sacrificed guinea pigs were decorated with colourful earrings and necklaces by 16th-century Incas — a finding that comes as a complete surprise to archaeologists.
New research published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology describes an extraordinary discovery at the Tambo Viejo site in southern Peru. The Incas constructed several administrative centres in the area, Tambo Viejo being one of them.
Archaeologist Lidio Valdez from the Institute of Andean Studies, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, uncovered 100 ritually sacrificed guinea pigs at two different locations at the site.
This is a big deal unto itself, in that it’s the first bona fide archaeological evidence to support observations recorded by early Spanish colonisers of the Americas, namely the mass killing of guinea pigs during rituals.
As such, the 100 guinea pigs at Tambo Viejo “represent the single largest find known for the entire former [Inca] territory,” wrote Valdez in the study. The ritual killings happened around 400 years ago, some two centuries after the arrival of Europeans to the New World.
The more remarkable aspect of the discovery, however, has to do with something scholars of Inca history have never seen before. The guinea pigs found at the site were decorated with earrings and necklaces made from colourful string. Some were even wrapped in cotton rugs like a sushi roll.
“Every time one digs [at Tambo Viejo] the findings are new, indicating that there is much to learn about the past,” explained Valdez in an email to Gizmodo. “In this case, something that was never seen before are the adorned guinea pigs. Colourful strings were placed around the neck of the animals as necklaces and other strings in the ears.”
A total of 72 guinea pigs were found within an Inca structure, with another 28 at a different location nearby. Colours of the strings included orange, red, purple and brown. The guinea pigs likely suffocated after being buried alive; no signs of trauma were visible on the animals. Some were laid out individually, others in pairs, or even groups.
Small branches of a bush known as chilco were laid next to the sacrificed animals, and some charcoal found buried nearby suggests fire was used during the ritual. Guinea pigs of various colours were included, including full black guinea pigs.
Interestingly, 66 of the 72 guinea pigs at the first site, and 27 of 28 at the second site, were juveniles. These numbers “strongly signal that there was a high preference for the sacrifice of younger animals over older ones,” wrote Valdez in the study, of which he is the lone author.
Guinea pigs were domesticated at least 5000 years ago, Valdez told Gizmodo, representing “an important element of Andean culture, next to coca leaves and chicha”, the latter being fermented beverages. The young guinea pigs, he said, may have been favoured because of their tender meat, and possibly due to important symbolic associations with youth.
For the ritual, clean sand was brought from a nearby river to bury the sacrificial animals. This, along with the dry, arid conditions of the area, allowed for the excellent preservation of the animals. After the guinea pigs were buried, a clay floor from an Inca dwelling was constructed on top of them, “thus sealing the offering animals,” wrote Valdez in the study.
Looking at some of the specimens pulled from the site, the animals appear as if they were buried recently, while the colours of the string are still vibrant.
As to why the Incas sacrificed guinea pigs, Valdez said the reasons aren’t immediately obvious, but he was happy to propose some theories.
“The Incas — and the peoples who came long before them — regularly provided offerings to anything that was sacred and therefore important to them,” he told Gizmodo.
“The reasoning was that everything in nature is alive and that nothing could be taken without reciprocating. So, the Incas believed that reciprocity was vital to maintain a good relationship with nature. I believe that some of the animals were decorated likely because they represented some sort of special gift and not something that was done because it had to be.”
Guinea pigs, he said, were only one of the many types of offerings given up by the Incas. At the same site, Valdez uncovered offerings of maize, chilli, peppers and llamas.
Edward Swenson, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto who wasn’t involved with the new research, was struck by the finding, saying he’d never seen anything quite like it. The colour of the guinea pigs, earrings and necklaces, he said, likely conveyed important symbolism, as colour coding was important in Inca ritualism.
Fascinatingly, Swenson suspects the dressed-up guinea pigs served as substitutes for humans, and they may have been treated in very person-like ways.
“Perhaps the earrings, necklaces and wrappings intended to humanize the offerings,” wrote Swenson in an email to Gizmodo. “The Spanish accounts of the [ritual] sacrifice of children — which has been confirmed archaeologically – reported that children were buried alive, similar to the young guinea pigs of this study.”
In terms of the sacrifice itself, Swenson suspects the guinea pigs were offered as foundation sacrifices at Tambo Viejo to animate or protect the buildings under which they were placed — a common practice in the Andes, both past and present, he said.
“However, to my knowledge, guinea pigs are rarely used in such foundation deposits, as llamas are more common. It is too bad the authors did not provide additional information on the function and layout of the two principal buildings, but perhaps that will be the subject of another article,” he said.
And indeed, that’s very likely. Valdez told Gizmodo that he’s leaving for Peru to further investigate items found at the site. Intriguingly, it appears some of the llamas found buried at Tambo Viejo were decorated as well. This site, it would appear, still has stories to tell.