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12.11: The Moche

  • Page ID
    72313
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    Learning Objective

    • Identify key aspects of Moche life

    Key Points

    • The Moche were less of a state or empire and more of a society—they lived in a general geographic area and shared cultural values, but were not governed under a uniform political system.
    • The Moche practiced a number of religious rituals, some of which involved human sacrifice.
    • Moche art appears in a variety of mediums, such as ceramics, architecture, and textiles, and lends insight into their beliefs and culture.

    Terms

    Decapitator

    A Moche icon, usually depicted as a spider, and associated with ritual sacrifices and the elements of land, air, and water.

    Moche

    A city in modern-day Peru, which is also where the Moche culture was centered.

    vicuña

    A wild South American camelid that lives in the high alpine areas of the Andes. It is a relative of the llama, and is now believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas, which are raised for their coats.

    Huaca

    A large, pyramid-like structure made of adobe bricks and used as a palace, ritual site, temple, and administrative center.

    The Moche (also known as the Early Chimú or Mochica) lived in what is modern-day Peru, near Moche and Trujillo. Their civilization lasted from approximately 100 to 800 CE. The Moche shared cultural values and social structures within a distinct geographical region. However, scholars suggest this civilization functioned as individual city-states, sharing similar cultural elite classes, rather than as an empire or a single political system.

    The Moche cultural sphere centered around several valleys along the north coast of Peru, and occupied 250 miles of desert coastline that extended up to 50 miles inland. Moche society was agriculturally based, but because of the arid climate, they invested heavily in the construction of a network of irrigation canals. These ornate canals diverted river water to crops across the region. The Moche are also noted for their expansive ceremonial architecture (huacas), elaborately painted ceramics, and woven textiles.

    Religion

    Both iconography and the discovery of human skeletons in ritual contexts seem to indicate that human sacrifice played a significant part in Moche religious practices. These rites appear to have involved the elite, both ruling men and women, as key actors in an elaborate spectacle. These rituals included:

    • Costumed participants, including elite priests and priestesses, many of which also ruled the city-states;
    • Monumental settings, including the pyramid-like structures called huacas; and
    • Likely the consumption of human blood and possibly flesh as a part of a renewal ritual.

    The Moche may have also held and tortured the victims for several weeks before sacrificing them, with the intent of deliberately drawing blood. The sacrifices may have been associated with rites of ancestral renewal and agricultural fertility.

    Moche iconography features a figure, which scholars have nicknamed the “Decapitator” or Ai Apaec. It is frequently depicted as a spider, but sometimes as a winged creature or a sea monster. Together, all three features symbolize land, water, and air. When the body is included, the figure is usually shown with one arm holding a knife and another holding a severed head by the hair. It has also been depicted as “a human figure with a tiger’s mouth and snarling fangs.”

    image
    Moche Decapitator. A mural depicting the Decapitator, a central Moche icon of the land, water, and air as well as a figure of death and renewal.

    Architecture

    The Huaca del Sol, a pyramidal adobe structure on the Rio Moche, was the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru. Huacas were the centerpieces for ritual sites and used as administrative centers and palaces for Moche culture. However, the Huaca del Sol was partly destroyed when Spanish Conquistadores mined its graves for gold in the 16th century. During the Spanish occupation of Peru in the early 17th century, colonists redirected the waters of the Moche River to run past the base of the Huaca del Sol in order to facilitate the looting of gold artifacts from the temple, which caused massive erosion. In total, approximately two-thirds of the structure has been lost to erosion and such looting. The remaining structure stands at a height of 41 meters (135 feet). Looting and erosion due to El Niño continue to be major concerns to this day

    image
    Huaca del Sol. Originally the largest pre-Columbian adobe structure in the Americas, this pyramid was constructed using around 130 million bricks.

    The nearby Huaca de la Luna is better preserved. Its interior walls contain many colorful murals with complex iconography. The site has been under professional archaeological excavation since the early 1990s.

    image
    A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background. When this structure was originally completed it would have been covered in brightly painted murals in yellows, blues, reds, and black.

    Art

    The Moche are well known for their art, especially their naturalistic and articulate ceramics, particularly in the form of stirrup-spout vessels. The ceramics incorporate a wide-ranging subject matter, both in shape and painted decorations, including representations of people, animals, and ritual scenes. They also feature gods hunting, scenes of war, music making, visiting rulers, burying the dead, curing the sick, and anthropomorphic iconography. Moche ceramics illustrate these recurring narrative themes, which help illuminate and define their ideologies in the present day.

    Some of the ceramics have become known as “sex-pots”: vessels depicting sexual acts. It is thought that these vessels were used for didactic purposes, and also as articulations of Moche culture. Because irrigation was the source of wealth and foundation of the empire, the Moche culture emphasized the importance of circulation and flow. Sexual themes in the pottery are posited to reflect Moche views of bodily fluids as an essential life force.

    The Moche also wove textiles, mostly using wool from vicuñas and alpacas. Although there are few surviving examples of this, descendants of the Moche people have strong weaving traditions.

    Collapse

    There are several theories as to what caused the demise of the Moche political structure. Some scholars have emphasized the role of environmental change. Studies of ice cores drilled from glaciers in the Andes reveal climatic events between 536 and 594 CE, possibly a super El Niño, that resulted in thirty years of intense rain and flooding followed by thirty years of drought, part of the aftermath of the climate changes of 535–536. These weather events could have disrupted the Moche way of life and shattered their faith in their religion, which had promised stable weather through sacrifices.

    Other evidence demonstrates that these events did not cause the final Moche demise. Moche polities survived beyond 650 in the Jequetepeque Valley and the Moche Valleys. For instance, in the Jequetepeque Valley, later settlements are characterized by fortifications and defensive works. While there is no evidence of a foreign invasion, as many scholars have suggested in the past, the defensive works suggest social unrest, possibly the result of climate change, as factions fought for control over increasingly scarce resources.

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