How farmers utilize sophisticated irrigation systems

Moche Paleoindians

The first human settlers crossed from the Old to New World approximately 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. In the hundreds of generations following, they proceeded over the Isthmus of Panama and down to the continent of what is now South America. Following what they had learned from their ancestors in the north, they became skilled in hunting and gathering the rich and diverse lands. Although the actual time they arrived in South America remains open for debate, it is known that the Paleoindians, as they are called by anthropologists, lived as far south as Monte Verde in Chile around 13,000 years ago. This was about 5,500 kilometers south of the isthmus. Another 2,000 years later, archaeological remains place them at the southernmost tip of the continent.

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The Paleoindians provide an excellent example of adaptation. For thousands of years, they survived in all types of environments, from the bitterly cold straits and extensive forests of the south to the grassy plains of today’s Argentina, to the dry and hot lands of Brazil, to the green and wet areas of the rain forest, and the heights of the Andes Mountains soaring nearly 8,000 km. This type of adaptation, that anthropologist Steward called “levels of sociocultural integration,” (1955:5), was indicative of what was seen in other areas of the pre-industrial world: First were the groups of migratory hunter gatherers, continuing to leverage the eclectic land as did their Paleoindian ancestors. Second were the stationary tribal villages, who survived on small-scale agriculture or horticulture. Third, were the complex sociopolitical chiefdoms, which relied on the extensive agricultural systems, and fourth were the pre-industrial societies that had a sophisticated agricultural system with a food-producing irrigation agriculture (Wilson 1999: iii).

The Moche inhabited an arid coastal plain, bordered on the east by the Andean cordillera and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Most of their settlements were located in a series of valleys whose rivers cut across the coastal plain, carrying water from the mountains to the sea. Archaeologists have traced the human occupation of this area from the end of the Pleistocene, around 10,000 years ago, through the development of settled village farming communities and the subsequent rise and fall of civilizations that took place prior to the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century.

The Moche people were named after the river that flows into the ocean just south of Trujillo. They prospered on the dry deserts of the Northern Coast of Peru between 200 BC and AD 700, originating with the decline of the Cupisnique period at the time of Christ. It is not believed that the Moche conquered the Cupisnique, but slowly took the land over as they expanded their complex social developments. The word Mochica is another name used for these people, which refers to a dialect spoken in the Trujillo area during conquest, although not necessarily spoken by the Moche people. However, this term is rarely used. The area inhabited by the Moche was not large, at maximum only consisting of valleys from Piura to Huarmey, a distance of approximately 550 kilometers from north to south. East-to-west coordinates were even smaller Moche settlements thus far have only been found between the ocean and the point where the valley floodplains narrow when entering the canyons and lead up to the Andean mountain range — normally a distance of 50 to 80 kilometers (Donnan 2004: 4).

The culture, according to archaeological evidence, indicates that the Moche society was composed of strata consisting of warrior-priest rulers, weavers, metalsmiths, potters and fishermen, slaves and beggars. Those living closest to these large pyramids and ceremonial temples in the urban areas were deemed the culture’s most important people, especially the priests and warriors who were revered and obeyed. Because of their status, these individuals are represented most in ceramics, while being carried in litters in their especially refined jewelry and clothing. The artwork also depicts how individuals who do not obey these leaders’ authority are punished with mutilation and even death.

According to Donnan (2004:1), who has conducted extensive archaeological work in the northern coastal region of what is now Peru, hundreds of years before the origination of the Moche civilization, their location was occupied by highly stratified societies that built massive architecture and developed highly complex weaving, ceramics and metallurgy. The Moche took the knowledge they acquired in the sophisticated arts, technology, and social organization from these previous people and further developed them to establish their own specialized culture.

The farmers utilized sophisticated irrigation systems that altered the arid desert lands into abundant farmland. They used what they learned to channel the rivers into a complex system of canals. This allowed them to significantly extend their cultivated lands and grow plentiful agriculture, including corn, beans, guava, avocados, squash, chili peppers, and peanuts. In addition, from the Pacific Ocean and area rivers, marshes, and lagoons, they caught tremendous amounts of fish and shell fish. Their meat consisted of llamas, guinea pigs, and ducks as well as smaller birds, which they occasionally found through hunting and gathering.

With such an abundant and wholesome diet, the Moche were able to retain a crowded, highly stratified population and to assign sizeable numbers of workers to the building and maintenance of irrigation canal systems, pyramids, palaces and temples.

In addition, the Moche kept up trade relationships with people living far beyond their territorial borders. For example, they found lapis lazuli hundreds of kilometers to the south, in present-day Chile and Spondylus shells from hundreds of kilometers to the north, in what is now Ecuador.

Although the Moche most likely did not have markets or money, they definitely practiced the redistribution system indicative of what was reported when Europeans first made contact. Subjects gave their food and commodities to the local lords, which they in turn redistributed to lesser ranking nobles. As a result, large amounts of food, raw materials, and crafts were regularly collected and effectively redistributed. The surplus that was left over after redistribution provided full-time jobs for a corps of full-time artisans who created objects for the elite.

The lords used many of these items to demonstrate their power and wealth, and the lesser nobility to maintain social and political allegiances. By supporting skilled craft specialists in this manner, there was an ideal environment for enhancing artistic excellence and the innovation of sophisticated technology. Due to the Moche society’s advanced state in ceramics, textiles and metalwork and architectural skills with huge structures, such as pyramids, there was enough additional time for highly developed art and organized religion.

According to iconography and major archaeological finds in the past two decades, it is becoming clearer that the Moche society revolved around human sacrifice. In 1987, Water Alva’s discovery of the Sipan tombs in Lambayeque Valley (Alva and Donnan 1993) actually included complex burial chambers for some of the highest-ranking individuals in Moche society and their corresponding sacrifice ceremony. The individual in Tomb 1 at Sipan, for instance, was one of the main characters in the ceremony and Tomb 2 was the resting place for his counterpart, or a figure identified as the Bird Priest.

Similarly, Arsenault (1994: 217) believes that a woman buried at he Huaca de la Cruz in the Viru Valley, actually excavated as early as the 1940s by the Viru Valley Project, is also connected to the sacrifice ceremony. A wooden staff found next to this female has a similarity to a staff in a drawing of the sacrifice ceremony, which is drawing blood from the captive.

It is also believed that human sacrifice was part of an elaborate funerary ritual. In 1995 at the site of Huaca de la Luna, archaeologists found the largest example of human sacrifice yet (Bourget: 1998). Over 70 individuals had been sacrificed during five or more separate rituals. Two of these sacrifices appear to be linked to El Nino, the weather pattern that often times results in major downpours, flooding, famine and disease, because they were embedded in clay. After each sacrificial ritual, ritual leaders left the victims’ remains in the central plaza, so they were exposed to the elements as well as to the flies who deposited eggs in their flesh.

Such finds have allowed the archaeologists to better define what took place in the sacrifice ceremonies. Earlier Alva and Donnan, for example, (1993: 141) did not know whether the ceremony was performed by Moche priests or depicted being done by deities in a mythical setting. The only information on the ceremony was from artistic depictions. Say the archaeologists: “The anthropomorphized bird and animal figures certainly seemed mythical, but perhaps these were artistic means to imply the supernatural aspects of real people who were enacting prescribed roles.” Not until the excavation of the Sipan Tomb 1 was there enough evidence that this ceremony actually occurred.

Further, two Moche ceramic goblets from museums were tested through immunological analysis and tested for ten animal antisera and human blood. The latter proved to be the only positive result (Bourget and Newman 1998). It can be assumed, therefore, that some of these cups contained human blood. As of yet, however, there is no direct relationship established between the sacrifice ceremony and the goblets. It is only believed that the Moche performed a number of different rituals with sacrificial components for various reasons. One type of sacrifice called the Mountain Sacrifice, for instance, is only known through iconography.

Bourget, who excavated fifteen strata of human remains at the Huaca de la Luna, found evidence of at least five distinct rituals (Pillsbury 2001: 96). “Few of the skeletons were complete; many disarticulated body parts were scattered across the area.” In addition to the human remains, the archeologists found fragments of at least 50 unfired clay effigies of nude males with ropes around their necks, which were shown seated cross-legged with their hands resting on their knees.”

In a number of instances, the finds are linked to the iconographical record. For example, one of the fatal wounds appears to have been delivered with a crescent-blade copper knife. Similarly, knives were used to cut throats and decapitation. Numerous knives are seen on ceramics scenes of throat slashing and decapitation. A wooden club found with black residue in one of the tombs with two males, one in his sixties and another an adolescent, shows through immunological analysis that it had been repeatedly drenched in human blood (Pillsbury 2001: 97).

The victims’ body parts were also removed and scattered around the plaza, as indicated by the disarticulated skeletal remains of heads, arms and legs. Such depictions are also evidenced on a number of ceramic vessels. Other body parts were inserted into the victims. A rib and a human jaw were inserted into the sacrum and thoracic cage of one victim; the toe into the pelvis of another; and a finger bone forced between the ribs of a third. In other instances, the lower jaw was removed and placed next to the body. This practice is also seen on iconography, where a design is painted from cheek to cheek and jaws decorated in depictions of combat. At least one of the individuals found had his facial skin removed, based on the cut marks on the forehead (Pillsbury 2001: 99-100).

Clay vessels add to the knowledge at Huaca de la Luna. Adjacent to the dismembered bodies were fragments of over 52 unfired clay vessels from full-figure portrait jars. Each is sculpted in the form of a nude prisoner, seated cross-legged with a rope around his neck. No two faces appear to be the same and each jar seems to represent a different individual. All are portrayed without headdresses or ear ornaments and with a lock of hair hanging down in front of the ears. Many have their chins painted with a distinctive band of small repetitive elements suspended from one or two horizontal lines, which has also been found on Moche fineline painting (Donnan 2004: 137).

The data from the burials finds it unlikely that the ceremonial sacrifices were of ritual combat among local Moche. However, this does not mean that some Moche were sacrificial victims in elaborate ceremonies that were integral parts of the Moche ruling class’ power and authority. However, it is negation of the concept that such combat was staged with sacrifice for its sole purpose. Moche scholars point out that war and combat usually have ritual and ceremonial elements (Dillehay 2001, Verano 2001), but this is not the main or final reason for such conflict.

The iconographic and archaeological data runs counter to the assumptions of the ritual-combat model. Thus, Sutter and Cortez tentatively conclude “that the model of local warfare among Moche polities best describes the nature of Moche human sacrifice. It clarifies the apparent cultural similarities among combatants in the Moche’s depictions of battle and captured prisoners while indicating that the sacrificial victims were captured enemy combatants who were not drawn from the local population” (Sutter & Cortez, 2005:. 548)

Throughout the centuries, the Moche sociopolitical structure developed into an increasingly complex form. In its first years, it was most likely a multifaceted chiefdom organization. This structure was maintained through a sophisticated ritual system run by a prestigious group of priests who, as time continued, based their power on administrators and warriors supporting rulers that controlled vast territories. Moche social organization most likely reached the level of a theocratic state in its peak. Over time, this priestly elite lost prestige and a more secular power structure evolved.

Little doubt exists that the Moche society was based on a high stratification and only an elite group of individuals enjoyed the exclusive access to wealth and power. According to Donnan (1995: 154-156), the Moche burial practices demonstrate this social stratification. Although they are representative of a societal shared tradition, they show the major discrepancy of wealth in the funeral inventory between those in the upper classes and those at the lower levels of the social hierarchy. The elite burials include prestige objects, such as lapis-lazuli and turquoise, gold and silver and fine ceramics (DeMarrais et al. 1996: 24).

The Moche population strata began with men and women who were farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, builders, and transporters, whose labor formed the foundation of the Moche society. Further up the social hierarchy were the priests, curers, soldiers, administrators and rulers who ensured that the required economic, political and religious structure of society remained stable and the upper class’ interests were secure (Bawden 1996: 76).

Chapdelaine (2001: 69) proposes that “several individuals of the highest urban class were acting as leaders of each quarter of the city’s urban nucleus, as members of a state council, heads of noble families, or leaders of large economic and/or social corporate groups.” Whereas the middle class in the urban sector consisted of skilled craftsmen, bureaucrats, and heads of smaller corporate groups, all working for the government body. A third class, which lived outside of the urban area, was made up of food producers and the labor force necessary to run the city’s operations. “In the urban nucleus, the leaders of these compounds were viewed as active members of the ruling group and were testing the supreme leader by accumulating private wealth” (ibid: 84)

This internal conflict between the elites may be a consequence of the growing power that was taking place in the urban classes and perhaps was even a factor in the Moche polity decline.

The recent findings are also shedding light on how the typical family members lived. At Moche, the houses demonstrate variability in size, internal segmentation, construction quality, and occupational continuity. The larger properties house extended families or polynuclear family households, which are divided into corporate groups that pool a variety of resources and are adapted to a wider set of production and distribution strategies. These larger, wealthier domains show an effective permanence from one generation to the next, more apparent evidence for household ritual, and a greater degree of membership integration. This more effectively allows for the transmission of a privileged socioeconomic status to one’s offspring and the establishment of extended, multigenerational households. On the other hand, the smaller houses most likely relied on a narrower economic base and the contributions of a smaller number of participants. These smaller dwellings also demonstrate, because of their size, lesser quality of construction, and short occupation, less permanence and cross-generational kinship than the wealthier houses. (van Gijseghem 2001: 270).

For some time, the Moche society has been known for its elaborate art work and pyramids that still remain on the Peruvian north coast. However, to the Moche people, these symbols were not for primarily for aesthetic purposes, but rather for their social meaning. They symbolized “the ideology of power, produced at the behest of the an exclusive body of rulers, calculated to assert and sustain its authority” (Bawden 1996: 108). Previously, most of the political structure had been determined by the iconography. However, the recent archeological findings have significantly added to an understanding of their meaning.

The finds at Sipan are especially enlightening, because this was where it is believed that Moche polity was centered. The most important rituals were conducted by political leaders who were buried in sacred locations. While they were alive, their place of power was represented in the iconography related to the architecture, pottery and metal items. Similarly, political ideology included ritual enactment of mythic events and processes that underlay the group integration as the means of maintaining social order. By conducting such rituals, rulers and their political order identified themselves with the overriding quality of myth and the social permanence that it enhanced (Bawden 1995:.259).

Material symbols also acted as important factors in this political process. “Symbols are active forces in ordering, interpreting, even reconstituting reality, and resolve social contradictions by permitting humans to forge links with the structural events that give them group identity” (Kurtz 1982: 203). A variety of different symbols including attire, regalia, religious and funerary paraphernalia, ritual iconography, monumental public art, and architecture all portray human leadership and its place within the society. It associates them with the foundations of social order and legitimizes their use of overriding power. Just as obvious, the well-known tombs of Sipan demonstrate that the ruling class played a leading role in both religion and warfare. The concentration of wealth that is found in the tombs is indicative of the bountiful burials found with the pharaohs in Egypt.

The Moche society is rich with iconography, especially relating to the ruling classes. Although the Moche did not have a system for writing, they left in-depth artistic detail of their activities and environment. Artistic endeavors depict their attire, architecture, tools, supernatural beings, and numerous activities, such as warfare, ceremony, and hunting. At first perusal, it appears that Moche art has an almost infinite variety of subject matter. However, those who have analyzed large portions of the iconography find that there are only a handful of specific events, or activities, which are referred to as themes (Donnan 1975). One the themes that is of most interest presently, due to the recent archeological findings, is the burial theme.

The depictions on bottles provide specific information on the burial process. For example, on a number of bottles there are two major figures — an anthropomorphized iguana and an individual with lines on his face that look like wrinkles. These two figures have extremely important roles in the Burial Theme and are referred to as the Iguana and Wrinkle Face. Iguana, with his lizard-looking face and long pointed serrated tail, usually has a sash-like bag tied over his shoulder or around his waist and wears a bird headdress. Most often, his almond-shaped eye seems to be pendant from the bottom edge of his headdress. Wrinkle Face instead has a round eye, which is not contiguous to the headdress. Normally, he is seen wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a step design on the front. It is cinched at the waist with a long belt or sash that terminates in serpent heads. Also, most often he wears a feline headdress. Iguana and Wrinkle Face are major figures in Moche art, and often appear together in burial activities (Donnan & McClelland 1979: 4)

In one bottle, Iguana and Wrinkle Face are lowering a long and horizontal casket into a grave shaft using ropes. The casket, shown at the bottom of the scene, has a face drawn on one end, which is typical for such artwork. This casket conforms to the shape of wicker caskets thus far excavated from Moche graves, and the face may be a metal mask that is such an integral aspect of this culture. Around the casket are a number of different grave goods. In some cases, Iguana or Wrinkle Face hold a llama with a rope around its neck. Such llamas could have been utilized to move the casket and/or burial goods to the grave site. Or it is possible that they were intended for sacrifice and inclusion in the grave. Iguana and Wrinkle Face are also found with dogs, which probably were not sacrificed and interred. (Donnan & McClelland 1979: 5).

The iconographic details of the burial theme closely agree with what is known archaeologically about Moche burial practices. Some elaborate Moche burials are in deep, narrow grave pits, and lowering a casket to the bottom of one of these would have been nearly impossible without the use of ropes. The form of the casket itself is reminiscent of some that have been found in graves.

A great deal of questions still remains about the Moche, despite the most recent findings. For example, debate continues on the political organization of the Moche society. Was it loosely organized as a confederation of valley politics linked by ideology and political alliances, as Alva and Donnan (1993) argue. or, was Moche a centralized state-level society ruled from the Moche site (Billman, 1996). Another question concerns the military control over the surrounding area. According to Verano (2001:111), most scholars agree that enough archaeological evidence has not yet been found to support the concept that the Moche had warfare and military conquests. However, combat scenes are a major aspect of the iconographic detail. Vendor asks whether these combat scenes depict a form of ritualized combat among the elite class or secular warfare and conquest.

In Moche art, modeled ceramic figures of warriors and combat scenes are very familiar. Most scholars interpret these drawings as a form of ritualized combat among the elite — “not as true depictions of conquest or warfare with non-Moche states. This conclusion is based on the placement and number of the figures, clothing, ornamentation and weapons, place the combat occurs, and the focus on taking captives instead of killing the enemy. Other indications of organized warfare, such as fortified sites under battle, destroyed villages or large numbers of soldiers are not represented (Verano 2001: 112).

Not surprising, based on the findings regarding the sacrificial ceremonies, most of the iconography regarding warfare consists of taking prisoners. Captives are shown being carried away with ropes around their necks. As noted above, the fate of warriors captured in battle is also depicted with much clarity. Bound captives have their throats slashed, and the blood is collected and presented in a goblet to the principal figure who is presiding over the event. According to Donnan (1978:158-173), the Sacrifice Ceremony appears to be a standardized ritual in which supernatural figures participated.

The recent archaeological discoveries are greatly assisting with the understanding of such iconography. It is now recognized that the Moche did take captives and had sacrificial ceremonies. These were not mythic depictions. However, many other questions remain, such as was it only the elite who were involved, was this a religious practice, was it tied to political motivations? Also, where did these prisoners come from? The archaeological evidence indicates that the Moche had sacrificial rituals up and down the north coast. This may mean that valleys may have competed against each other to obtain captives for their temples or perhaps combat was arranged between different centers. Verano (2001:122) argues that such questions cannot yet be answered given the evidence thus found. He does say, however, that the sacrificial depictions tend to support the Moche society as composed of several competing royal courts, instead of a centralized state-ruled political body out of the Moche Valley.

One investigative avenue presently being followed to shed more light on these questions is the use of DNA and bone chemistry. The results will better identify the population origin of these victims.

Religion is integrated into all aspects of the Moche society, the socio-political structure, the iconography and the burials. Bourget has been conducting research in this area. Defining the Moche religion remains in debate, with a number of different theories presented. Moche religion was complex and consisted of an array of gods with well-defined roles. The scenes painted on pottery and on murals indicate that Moche rituals and ceremonies formed the ideological base of the society. Cults and ceremonial activities were basically linked to rainfall in the Andes, fertility of the fields and the continuity of the social organization. The most recent concept by Donnan, backed up art and archaeological remains and current shamanistic practices in that region of Peru, argues that physical and spiritual healing was conducted by shamanistic doctors or curanderos. These shamans would call for aid from an animal spirit due to its specific characteristics and use herbs and other medical practices as part of the religious act. It is also possible that these curanderos may also have been responsible surgical practices.

When excavators cleared the Pyramid of the Moon exterior and interior walls, they found large painted murals and friezes with warfare and the ritual decapitation noted above, complex geometric designs, fearsome portraits of Moche deities like the Decapitator, who was a bulgy eyed, sharp-toothed god that looks like an octopus, as well as terrestrial and sea creatures in bright yellow, red, white, and black. Further excavations of the last decade at the Pyramid of the Moon and the urban are providing Moche scholars with a great deal of information about ritual and everyday lives of the residents. Previously, most ritual evidence was based on the extraordinary and often gruesome artwork that was mostly depicted on ceramics. For example, vessels with stirrup-spouted bottles, molded figures and intricate fine-line painting depict warrior-priests adorned in imposing ornate garb implementing ritual warfare; slitting captives’ throats, drinking their blood, and hanging their bones from ropes, in addition to participating in acts of sodomy and fellatio as part of the structured ceremony. In the absence of archaeological evidence, most scholars believed that this was just imagery that the priestly class used to underscore its coercive power. Now this is truly open to debate.


Bawden, Garth. 1996 the Moche. Blackwell, Oxford.

Berezkin, Juri 1983. Moche Nauka, Leningrad.

Chapdelaine, Claude nd the Moche Occupation of the Lower Santa Valley and the nature of the Southern Moche State Anthropology Department. University of Montreal.

____The Growing Power of the Moche Urban Class. In Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru. pp. 69-85 National Gallery of Art: Washington, D.C.

DeMarrais, Elisabeth, Castillo, Luis, James and Earle, Timothy. 1996. Ideology, Materialization and Power Strategies. Current Anthropology. Volume 37(1): 15-31

Dillehay, Tom. 2001 Town and country in the Late Moche. In Moche art and archaeology in ancient Peru. pp. 259-84. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Donnan, C.B.Moche Funerary Practice 1995. In Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices, pp. 111-159 Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Donnan, Christopher and McClelland, Donna.1979 the Burial Theme in Moche Iconography. Harvard University, Dumbarton Oaks van Gijseghem, Hendrick. 2001. Household and Family at Moche, Peru. Latin American Antiquity. Volume 12(3): 257-273

Hill, Erica 1998. Death as a rite of passage: the iconography of the Moche burial theme..Antiquity Volume 27 (277) [HIDDEN]

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Bio-Archaeological Perspective Current Anthropology Volume 46 (4): 521-549

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A conceptual approach to iconography Department of Anthropology Harvard University

Verano, J. 2001. War and death in the Moche world: Osteological evidence and visual discourse. In Moche art and archaeology in ancient Peru:. pp.111-26. Yale University Press, New Haven:

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