Moche culture

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This article is about the ancient civilization. For the district in Trujillo Province, see Moche District. For its capital city, see Moche, Trujillo.
Moche Culture
Culturally united independent polities


A map of Moche cultural influence.
Capital Moche[1]
Languages Muchik
Religion Polytheist
Political structure Culturally united independent polities
Historical era Pre-Columbian
 -  Established 100
 -  Disestablished 700
Today part of  Peru
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The Moche civilization (alternatively, the Mochica culture, Early Chimu, Pre-Chimu, Proto-Chimu, etc.) flourished in northern Peru with its capital near present-day Moche and Trujillo,[1] from about 100 AD to 800 AD, during the Regional Development Epoch. While this issue is the subject of some debate, many scholars contend that the Moche were not politically organized as a monolithic empire or state. Rather, they were likely a group of autonomous polities that shared a common elite culture, as seen in the rich iconography and monumental architecture that survive today.

Moche society was agriculturally based, with a significant level of investment in the construction of a network of irrigation canals for the diversion of river water to supply their crops. Their culture was sophisticated; and their artifacts express their lives, with detailed scenes of hunting, fishing, fighting, sacrifice, sexual encounters and elaborate ceremonies. The Moche are particularly noted for their elaborately painted ceramics, gold work, monumental constructions (huacas) and irrigation systems.[2] Moche history may be broadly divided into three periods – the emergence of the Moche culture in Early Moche (100–300 AD), its expansion and florescence during Middle Moche (300–600 AD), and the urban nucleation and subsequent collapse in Late Moche (500–750 AD).[3]

The Moche cultural sphere is centered on several valleys on the north coast of Peru in regions La Libertad, Lambayeque, Jequetepeque, Chicama, Moche, Virú, Chao, Santa, and Nepena[4] and occupied 250 miles of desert coastline and up to 50 miles inland.[5] The Huaca del Sol, a pyramidal adobe structure on the Rio Moche, was the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru, but it was partly destroyed when Spanish Conquistadores mined its graves for gold in the 16th century. The nearby Huaca de la Luna is better preserved. Its interior walls contains many colorful murals with complex iconography. The site has been under professional archaeological excavation since the early 1990s. Other major Moche sites include Sipan, Pampa Grande, Loma Negra, Dos Cabezas, Pacatnamu, San Jose de Moro, the El Brujo complex, Mocollope, Cerro Mayal, Galindo, Huanchaco, and Pañamarka.

Their adobe huacas have been mostly destroyed by looters and natural forces over the last 1300 years. The surviving ones show that the coloring of their murals was very vibrant.

Material culture[edit]


Moche pottery is some of the most varied in the world. The use of mold technology is evident. This would have enabled the mass production of certain forms. But Moche ceramics vary widely in shape and theme, with most important social activities documented in pottery, including war, metalwork, weaving and sex.

Traditional north coast Peruvian ceramic art uses a limited palette, relying primarily on red and white; fineline painting, fully modeled clay, veristic figures, and stirrup spouts. Moche ceramics created between 150–800 AD epitomize this style. Moche pots have been found not just at major north coast archaeological sites, such as Huaca de la luna, Huaca del sol, and Sipan, but also at small villages and unrecorded burial sites as well.

Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun), Mochica cultural capital, 4 km south of the modern city of Trujillo

Because irrigation was the source of wealth and foundation of the empire, the Moche culture emphasized the importance of circulation and flow. Expanding upon this, Moche artwork frequently depicted the passage of fluids, particularly life fluids through vulnerable human orifices. There are countless images of defeated warriors losing life fluids through their nose, or helpless victims getting their eyes torn out by birds or captors. Images of captive sex-slaves with gaping orifices and leaking fluids portray extreme exposure, humiliation, and a loss of power.[citation needed]

The coloration of Moche pottery is often simple, with yellowish cream and rich red used almost exclusively on elite pieces. White and black are rarely used. The Moche are known for their portraiture pottery. The pottery portraits created by the Moche appear to represent actual individuals. Many of the portraits are of individuals with physical disfigurements or genetic defects.

The realistic detail in Moche ceramics may have helped them serve as didactic models. Older generations could pass down general knowledge about reciprocity and embodiment to younger generations through such portrayals. The sex pots could teach about procreation, sexual pleasure, cultural and social norms, a sort of immortality, and transfer of life and souls, transformation, and the relationship between the two cyclical views of nature and life.[6]


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


Moche Nariguera depicting the Decapitator (Ayapec, Ai Apaec ), gold with turquoise and chrysocolla inlays. Museo Oro del Peru, Lima
Moche "Decapitator" (Ayapec, Ai Apaec) mural at Huaca de la Luna

Both iconography and the finds 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 as key actors in a spectacle of costumed participants, monumental settings and possibly the ritual consumption of blood. While some scholars, such as Christopher B. Donnan and Izumi Shimada, argue that the sacrificial victims were the losers of ritual battles among local elites, others, such as John Verano and Richard Sutter, suggest that the sacrificial victims were warriors captured in territorial battles between the Moche and other nearby societies. Excavations in plazas near Moche huacas have found groups of people sacrificed together and the skeletons of young men deliberately excarnated, perhaps for temple displays.[7]

The Moche may have also held and tortured the victims for several weeks before sacrificing them, with the intent of deliberately drawing blood. Verano believes that some parts of the victim may have been eaten as well in ritual cannibalism.[7] 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".[8] The "Decapitator" is thought to have figured prominently in the beliefs surrounding the practice of sacrifice.


There are several theories as to what caused the demise of the Moche political structure. Some scholars have emphasised the role of environmental change. Studies of ice cores drilled from glaciers in the Andes reveal climatic events between 536 to 594 AD, possibly a super El Niño, that resulted in 30 years of intense rain and flooding followed by 30 years of drought, part of the aftermath of the climate changes of 535–536.[9] 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 AD 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 (i.e. a Huari invasion), the defensive works suggest social unrest, possibly the result of climatic changes, as factions fought for control over increasingly scarce resources.[10]

Links with other cultures[edit]

Chronologically, the Moche was an Early Intermediate Period culture, which was preceded by the Chavín horizon and succeeded by the Huari and Chimú. The Moche co-existed with the Ica-Nazca culture in the south. They are thought to have had some limited contact with the Ica-Nazca because they later mined guano for fertilizer and may have traded with northerners. Moche pottery has been found near Ica, but no Ica-Nazca pottery has been found in Moche territory. The coastal Moche culture also co-existed (or overlapped in time) with the slightly earlier Recuay culture (es) in the highlands. Some Moche iconographic motifs can be traced to Recuay design elements.

Archaeological discoveries[edit]

The Lord of Sipán, Royal Tombs of Sipán museum, Lambayeque, Peru
Caballito de totora in the Peruvian beach of Huanchaco.

In 1987, archaeologists, alerted by the local police, discovered the first intact Moche tomb at Sipán in northern Peru. Inside the tomb, which was carbon dated to about 300 CE, the archaeologists found the mummified remains of a high ranking male, the Lord of Sipán. Also in the tomb were the remains of six other individuals, several animals, and a large variety of ornamental and functional items, many of which were made of gold, silver, and other valuable materials. Continuing excavations of the site have yielded thirteen additional tombs.

In 2005, a mummified Moche woman known as the Lady of Cao was discovered at the Huaca Cao Viejo, part of the El Brujo archaeological site on the outskirts of present-day Trujillo, Peru. It is the best preserved Moche mummy found to date; the elaborate tomb that housed her had unprecedented decoration. The site archaeologists believe that the tomb had been undisturbed since approximately 450 AD. The tomb contained military and ornamental artifacts, including war clubs and spear throwers. The remains of a garroted teenage girl, probably a servant, was also found in the tomb.[11] News of the discovery was announced by Peruvian and U.S. archaeologists in collaboration with National Geographic in May 2006.[12]

In 2005 perhaps the most lavish and valuable Moche artifact ever discovered turned up in a Londoner's office; it was an elaborate gold mask thought to depict a sea god, with curving rays radiating from a stone-inlaid feline face. Experts thought that the artifact may have been looted in the late 1980s from an elite tomb at the Moche site of La Mina. Recovered by Scotland Yard, it was returned to Peru in 2006.[13][14]

In 2013 archaeologists unearthed a female skeleton taken as confirmation that the Moche were ruled by a succession of priestesses who acted as queens. "This find makes it clear that women didn't just run rituals in this area but governed here and were queens of Mochica society," said project director Luis Jaime Castillo, according to the Associated Free Press. "It is the eighth priestess to be discovered," he added. "Our excavations have only turned up tombs with women, never men."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cardenas, Maritza (ed.). "Huacas del Sol y de la Luna – Capital de la Cultura-Mochica" (in Spanish). Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  2. ^ Beck, Roger B.; Black, Linda; Krieger, Larry S.; Naylor, Phillip C.; Shabaka, Dahia Ibo (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X. 
  3. ^ Bawden, G. (2004). "The Art of Moche Politics". In Silverman, H. Andean Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 
  4. ^ Castillo Butters, Luis Jaime. "Moche Politics in the Jequetepeque Valley". Retrieved 2012-11-23. 
  5. ^ James E. McClellan III; Harold Dorn. Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. JHU Press; 14 April 2006. ISBN 978-0-8018-8360-6. p. 40.
  6. ^ Chapdelaine, Claude; Kennedy, Greg; Uceda Castillo, Santiago (1995). "Neutron activation analysis and local production of ritual ceramics at the Moche site, Peru". Bulletin de l'Institut Francais d'Etudes Andines 24 (2): 183–212. 
  7. ^ a b Popson, Colleen P. (March–April 2002). "Grim Rites of the Moche". Archaeology 55 (2). Retrieved 2013-05-12. 
  8. ^ "Moche Culture". About Peru History. Retrieved 2012-05-22. 
  9. ^ Keys, David (2000). "The Mud of Hades". Catastrophe: an Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (1st [American] ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345444361. 
  10. ^ Davidson, Nick (2 March 2005). "Lost society tore itself apart". BBC Horizon. Retrieved 2005-05-04. 
  11. ^ El Brujo and Lady of Cao,
  12. ^ Norris, Scott (May 16, 2006). "Mummy of Tattooed Woman Discovered in Peru Pyramid". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2006-05-16. 
  13. ^ Lovett, Richard A. (August 18, 2006). "Photo in the News: Looted Peru Headdress Recovered in London". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2010-12-18. 
  14. ^ Vecchio, Rick (September 15, 2006). "Looted gold headdress returned to Peru". Peru This Week. AP. Retrieved 12 May 2013. 
  15. ^ Sutherland, Scott (August 29, 2013). "Unearthed Peruvian tomb confirms that women ruled over brutal ancient culture". Associated Free Press. Retrieved 2013-08-29. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]