• Little-visited archaeological site, beginning to reveal some gruesome secrets

  • Evidence of human sacrifice - both children and adults - and body mutilation

  • Encompasses at least 3 cultures: Lambayeque, Chimu & Inca

  • Tomb of Priestess of Chornacap reveals her high position in society

The Chotuna-Chornancap archaeological complex is situated in San Jose district, in the Department of Lambayeque, 12 km ( 7.5 miles) to the north-west of the city of Chiclayo, in Northern Peru.

It covers an area of approximately 20 hectares (49 acres), and consists of a series of tiered, flat-topped pyramids (huacas), palaces and walled compounds. Several of the buildings are in total ruins. Of the huacas, two are prominent - Chotuna and Chornancap - and they give their name to the site. 

It is thought that it was a ceremonial centre of the Lambayeque (also known as Sican) culture, of pre-Columbian Peru, which developed between 700 and 1300 AD. Later, it was conquered by people of the Chimu culture, and then the Incas.  

Huaca Chotuna was first investigated in the 1910s and 1920s by the German-born ethnologist Hans Heinrich 'Enrique' Bruning, who identified it as Chot, the place mentioned by the Chronicler Miguel Cabello Valboa as where the founder of the Lambayeque kingdom, Naylamp, built a temple. having emerged from the sea with his entourage. Here he buried a jade image of himself, called Yampallec, after which Lambayeque gets its name. 

Although Bruning later changed his opinion, popular belief still associates Huaca Chotuna with the mythical Chot, and supposes that Naylamp and his descendents are to be found in its depths. 

Other academic studies of the complex followed. The famous German anthropologist, Hermann Trimborn, visited in the 1970s, and published his thoughts in a 1979 book on the Lambayeque kingdom

In the early 1980s, the US archaeologist and expert on Moche civilization, Christopher B. Donnan, carried out investigations at the site and produced the first maps of the area. He also uncovered the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic bas-relief friezes on the walls of what is thought to be a temple in Huaca Gloria, and discovered further wall paintings at Chornancap. 

Huaca Chornancap is situated one kilometre (0.6 miles) west of Chotuna. It is a flat-topped pyramid, with a base in the form of a T and a central ramp going to the top. It is partially decorated with murals of figures evoking the activities of the era, with typical Lambayeque iconography. These murals show similarities to those found in the Huaca Arco Iris, in the Moche Valley, near Trujillo

In 2011, under the auspices of Peruvian archaeologist and director of the nearby Bruning MuseumCarlos Wester La Torre, the tomb of what is thought to be a young priestess was discovered, along with gold, silver and copper ornaments. The Sacerdotisa de Chornancap, as she has come to be known, was buried with eight women, aged 15 to 20, by her side which, along with the fine quality of the textiles and jewellery in her funerary bundle, point to her importance in the Lambayeque hierarchy. 

The same team came upon the grave of what they surmised to be a high-class executioner. The skeleton - of a male aged between 20 and 30 - had ancient ceremonial knives at his side, pointing to his profession; while the quantity and kind and quantity of artifacts buried with him suggests he was a member of the Lambayeque elite. 

Then in 2016, during further excavation work undertaken by Peru’s Ministry of Culture, a group of more than 13 graves was unearthed, dating back to the era of the Chimu-Inca culture, in the 15th and 16th centuries. 

Of particular interest were the remains of six children, placed in pairs of shallow graves, located on the north, east and west ends of the ruins. Of these children, two were found with their feet missing, leading archaeologists to speculate that they may have been sacrificed as an offering, then had their feet amputated and used as ceremonial guardians of the other tombs.

The remains of the other individuals – men and women – were buried face-up, in narrow, long graves. Deliberate distortions in some of their bodies seems to indicate intensive ritualistic activities, and human sacrifice in some cases.

The most prominent person was buried at the centre of the funeral group, in a tomb containing offerings, such as two clay pots, and a sculpted vessel in a shape suggesting the head of a coquero (a man chewing coca leaves). 

Overall, more than 50 sacrifice victims have so far been found at Chotuna-Chornancap, spanning hundreds of years and three civilizations ... at least.

Like so much of Peru's rich archaeological heritage, there remains a huge amount of research still to be done  to understand the full significance of this vast complex. Nonetheless, there is an informative museum on site with re-creations of how life may have been for the inhabitants.