Violent deaths of children during a time of imperial decline in Ancient Peru

A new study has found that children suffered violent deaths during a turbulent time of severe social stress and drought following the “collapse” of the Wari empire in the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1400 C.E.) in the Peruvian Andes.

A research chapter by Tiffiny Tung from Vanderbilt University and colleagues has shown the locations of fractures predominantly on the left side of the posterior crania strongly suggest that these injuries were not accidental. The severity of fractures with large pieces of bone dislodged indicate that these were formed from violent blows in a standardised manner (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.18.08 pm

Figure 1: Top row, Cranium 20: Perimortem trauma on the left side (left photograph) and two perimortem fractures on the posterior (right photograph). Bottom row Cranium 68: perimortem trauma on the left side (bottom left photograph is posterior view, bottom right photograph is posterior-lateral view). Both are from the Late Intermediate Period component at the Vegachayoq Moqo sector at Huari (photo from Taung et al. 2016, figure 10.4, page 207)

The prevalence of these types of trauma in the Late Intermediate Period (n=4/8) is statistically significantly higher than the preceding period where there was no evidence for perimortem trauma in the Wari-era children (N=39).

The authors state that “ … lethal trauma—or any kind of cranial trauma—on children is exceedingly rare in the Andes (except in cases of child sacrifice), so it is particularly revealing of the unstable sociopolitical conditions in the LIP [Late Intermediate Period] in the Ayacucho Basin.”

Previous work by Tung (2008) has shown that more than two thirds of the adults also experienced cranial trauma attesting to a climate of violence during the Late Intermediate Period in this region.

Carbon isotope ratios from enamel apatite and dentine collagen show that maize consumption decreased during this time, and that there was unequal access to maize between the sites, which the authors argue may have led to social tension through inequality.

The authors state that a combination of factors may have contributed to the high level of lethal trauma in the children. The Wari empire represented the first expansive empire in South America, which maintained control of the area from the northern Andes of Peru, to the central Peruvian coast, to the Moquegua Valley in the far south (Schreiber 1992). After its collapse there is evidence for a major transition in social organisation, and increase in competition for scarce resources, supported by the change in patterns of maize consumption. The pattern of trauma found does not suggest child abuse, but rather that the aggressors intended to kill them, argued by the authors to have occurred during raids in the communities.

Although there is no way to definitively tell what caused the increase in lethal trauma in the children, what is clear is that the turbulent times during the imperial collapse likely contributed to their violent deaths.



Schreiber, K. J. (1992). Wari imperialism in Middle Horizon Peru. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology University of Michigan.

Tung, T. A. (2008). Violence after imperial collapse: A study of cranial trauma among Late Intermediate period burials from the former Wari capital, Ayacucho, Peru. Nawpa Pacha, 29, 101–118.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.