Ancient Peru crisis linked to violence, study shows

Credit: Luis Pezo-Lanfranco

During the transition from the fifth to the fourth century BCE, the Central Andes, an area now part of Peru, experienced a period of significant change and turmoil.

Researchers delving into this era have unearthed evidence suggesting that this time was marked by political upheaval and violence, potentially linked to a shift away from religiously driven governance towards more secular forms of leadership.

A groundbreaking study published in Latin American Antiquity by an international team led by Peruvian bioarchaeologist Luis Pezo-Lanfranco sheds new light on these turbulent times.

Conducting a detailed examination of skeletal remains from a burial site in the Supe Valley, close to the ancient ceremonial center of Caral, the team discovered clear signs of interpersonal violence.

The analysis of 67 individuals, dating back to between 500 and 400 BCE, revealed that a staggering 80% of adults and adolescents bore injuries that led to their deaths, indicative of violent encounters.

Pezo-Lanfranco, who spearheaded this research while at the University of São Paulo and is now with the Autonomous University of Barcelona, hypothesizes that these violent acts were the result of invasions by outside groups.

The dead, including children, showed injuries consistent with fatal conflicts, likely intercommunity in nature. Yet, despite this violence, the dead were buried with customary funeral rites, suggesting a continuity of community and care even in the aftermath of such brutality.

The study not only highlights the occurrence of repeated, lethal violence but also draws attention to the living conditions of the time.

Analysis of the skeletons revealed a high incidence of stress and infectious diseases, possibly stemming from resource scarcity and population pressures. The simplicity of the grave goods further underscores the potential poverty faced by these communities.

The backdrop to these findings is the decline of the Chavín culture, a once-dominant civilization known for its monumental ceremonial centers like Chavín de Huantar.

As this culture waned around 500–400 BCE, its religiously centered political structures gave way, possibly marking the beginning of more secular governance in the region.

The worship of a man-jaguar deity by the Chavín people, indicative of a broader tradition of combining animal and human attributes in deity figures, points to rich spiritual traditions.

However, the absence of written records from this era leaves many aspects of these beliefs shrouded in mystery.

This research offers invaluable insights into a poorly documented chapter of Andean history, revealing the complexities of societal changes, conflict, and the human condition during a pivotal period.

By examining well-preserved remains, the team not only contributes to our understanding of the bioarchaeology of violence but also sheds light on the broader societal pressures and transitions that shaped the ancient Central Andes.

The research findings can be found in Latin American Antiquity.

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