The animals ate a highly unusual meal, including cooked foods, before they were ceremonially killed some 600 years ago.
More than 200 young llamas were pampered with a special last meal — which included chilli peppers and beans — in preparation for their ritual slaughter roughly 6 centuries ago.
The animals were killed on Peru’s northern coast at a site called Huanchaquito-Las Llamas, where the remains of almost 140 sacrificed children have also been found. The skeletons and mummified bodies of the children and beasts were unearthed by excavations that started in 2011.
Clarissa Cagnato, then at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, and her colleagues analysed starch grains, which can survive intact over long periods, from some of the animals’ guts to determine what the llamas ate before death.
On the menu were maize (corn) and spiny trees, which llamas might have grazed on or been given as fodder. But traces of unusual plants such as chillies, beans and a starchy root called cassava were also present in their guts, as were cooked foods, as indicated by heat damage to some starch grains.
The researchers suggest that the animals ate their final meal a few hours or days before they were killed.