Archaeologists in Peru have found the ancient remains of 140 children who were likely killed as part of a mass ritual sacrifice.
The killings of the children, who were between five and 14 years old, took place about 550 years ago near the modern-day city of Trujillo, the scientists said.
The sacrificial rituals were probably carried out by the Chimu civilisation, who inhabited the area at the time, National Geographic, which partially funded the excavation, reported.
According to the archaeologists, the bodies of the 140 children carried cut marks and red pigment indicating they were part of sacrificial killings, adding that the hearts of the children were possibly removed during the ritual.
Besides the bodies of the 140 children, the remains of 200 young llamas were also found at the site.
The bodies of the animals were all facing the same direction, another indication a ritual slaughter might have taken place.
Based on mud samples from the area, the scientists believe the sacrifice might have been carried out in an attempt to stop a massive weather event, such as a flooding, which might have disrupted local food supplies.
The scientists argue it was possibly an El Nino event that caused the massive flooding that eventually led to the ritual killings.
The excavations began in 2011, when the remains of 42 children and 76 llamas were found in a nearby temple. Over the following years, more than 100 new children and 150 llamas were found in the surrounding area.
The scientists also found the remains of three adults, who probably also played a part in the ritual.
The Chimu civilisation was one of the most powerful in Peru, with its territory spreading out along the coastline of the country.
Based on carbon dating of the clothing fragments, the archaeologists were able to determine the killings took place between 1400 and 1450, just several decades before the Chimu civilisation was conquered by the Incas.
Although earlier evidence of child sacrifices in Latin America have been recorded, the site in Peru is the largest mass grave found to date containing only children.