Huanchaco (Pérou) : Ancient Shark Fishermen Found Buried with Extra Limbs

Archaeologists are stumped why these 1,900-year-old Peruvians were buried with bonus body parts—in one case, with two extra left legs.

Kristin Romey

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Viru burial 1 e 10 adapt 590 1This ancient burial held a surprise for archaeologists: Two additional left legs were buried alongside the body. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GABRIEL PRIETO

Dozens of "very unique" ancient burials have been discovered on the northern Peruvian coast, many of which appear to contain valuable metal objects, whimsical ceramic pots, and—in some cases—additional human limbs.

According to Victor Campaña, current director of the Las Lomas Rescue Project, more than 50 burials belonging to the Virú culture have been discovered in the town of Huanchaco, seven miles north of the regional capital of Trujillo.

The burials were uncovered during recent salvage excavations performed ahead of water and sewage infrastructure work in the small seaside town.

The little-known Virú culture, named for the Virú Valley which runs from the Andes mountains to the Pacific, thrived in the area between A.D. 100 and 750, before the Moche took control of the region. Campaña's excavations have revealed a small coastal settlement along with the burials.

It’s a complex little fishing village," he says.

There's particular complexity in many of the burials, Campaña adds, noting that around 30 of the 54 mostly adult burials appear to include not only complete skeletons, but also additional body parts. Most of the bonus limbs appear to be arms and legs. In one case, an adult was buried intact, along with two additional left legs interred right beside the body.

Viru burial 2 img 0227 adapt 590 1A monkey clings to the handle of this Virú pot, which was placed in one of the burials. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GABRIEL PRIETO

While more scientific analysis is needed to determine the age and sex of the burials, a preliminary study indicates that many sets of remains show evidence of trauma, including cut marks and blunt-force injury. The individuals who had suffered trauma were also most likely to have been buried with additional limbs, says Campaña.

Later Moche burials often feature individuals buried with missing limbs, or with additional complete sacrificial victims, notes Gabriel Prieto, scientific director of the current rescue project in Huanchaco. However, the practice of burying the dead with extra body parts is "very unique to Virú," he says.

A similar practice was discovered in the early 2000s with a much smaller set of Virú burials excavated at El Castillo Santa, south of Trujillo, Prieto adds.

At this time, the archaeologists can only speculate about the motivation behind the unusual Virú burials. One suggestion is that the extra limbs may have served as a sacrificial offering to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Additional lab work will determine if there was any sort of relation between the individuals buried and the owners of the additional body parts.

A Legacy of Fishermen

The Virú burials also feature a variety of grave goods, including ceramic vessels decorated with human faces and whimsical animal details, jewelry, and folded copper sheets inserted into the mouths or the hands of the deceased. Among Campaña's most interesting find so far is a very large (four-inch-long) copper fish hook wrapped with gold foil.

The size of the hook is appropriate for snaring large fish and sharks, a practice with a very long tradition in this northern Peruvian coastal region.

Viru burial 3 p1090396 adapt 590 1This large copper hook, with a strip of gold wrapped around the center of the shaft, is a testament to the legacy of fishing in the region. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GABRIEL PRIETO

In 2010, Prieto discovered a 3,500-year-old temple used by shark huntersin the Huanchaco area. Evidence for Caballitos de Totora, reed boats still used by the fishermen of Huanchaco to this day, goes back at least four millennia.

José Ruiz Vega, mayor of Huanchaco district, says he's proud to lead one of the last towns in Peru with an ancient fishing tradition that has continued unbroken for thousands of years to modern times.

He also takes the frequent interruption of his infrastructure projects in stride, and hopes to create a center that will highlight the resulting archaeological finds.

"A museum for Huanchaco will [not only] represent an economic opportunity for the locals to attract more tourists," Mayor Ruiz says, "but also an important institution to educate our people, and to show them the amazing treasures buried literally beneath their houses."