The Worlds of the Moche on the North Coast of Peru

[ Pre-Columbian Studies ]

The Worlds of the Moche on the North Coast of Peru

By Elizabeth P. Benson

One of the world’s leading authorities presents a major overview of the Moche, one of pre-Columbian America’s greatest civilizations, renowned for its monumental architecture, metalwork, ceramics, and textiles.



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8.5 x 11 | 192 pp. | 11 color photos, 62 b&w photos, 23 illustrations, 1 maps, 1 graphs

ISBN: 978-0-292-73759-4

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The Moche, or Mochica, created an extraordinary civilization on the north coast of Peru for most of the first millennium AD. Although they had no written language with which to record their history and beliefs, the Moche built enormous ceremonial edifices and embellished them with mural paintings depicting supernatural figures and rituals. Highly skilled Moche artisans crafted remarkable ceramic vessels, which they painted with figures and scenes or modeled like sculpture, and mastered metallurgy in gold, silver, and copper to make impressive symbolic ornaments. They also wove textiles that were complex in execution and design.

A senior scholar renowned for her discoveries about the Moche, Elizabeth P. Benson published the first English-language monograph on the subject in 1972. Now in this volume, she draws on decades of knowledge, as well as the findings of other researchers, to offer a grand overview of all that is currently known about the Moche. Touching on all significant aspects of Moche culture, she covers such topics as their worldview and ritual life, ceremonial architecture and murals, art and craft, supernatural beings, government and warfare, and burial and the afterlife. She demonstrates that the Moche expressed, with symbolic language in metal and clay, what cultures in other parts of the world presented in writing. Indeed, Benson asserts that the accomplishments of the Moche are comparable to those of their Mesoamerica contemporaries, the Maya, which makes them one of the most advanced civilizations of pre-Columbian America.

Preface and Acknowledgments

  1. Approaching the Moche Worlds
  2. Precursors and Neighbors
  3. The Reality of the Moche Worlds
  4. The Life of Things
  5. Ceremonial Architecture and Murals
  6. Art and Craft
  7. The Snake-Belt God and the Monsters
  8. The Later Gods
  9. Rulers, Warriors, and Priests
  10. Ritual Life
  11. The Sea
  12. Burial and the Afterlife
  13. The End of the Moche Worlds

References and Further Reading


Approaching the Moche Worlds

The people now called "Moche," or "Mochica," created an extraordinary civilization on the north coast of Peru circa AD 100–800. To understand it, one must call to mind the environment in which the Moche achieved their success in livelihood generally and, specifically, in architecture, mural painting, metallurgy, ceramics, and other arts and occupations.

The Environment

One of the driest deserts in the world, the coast of Peru is a sandy strip, in some places very narrow, between the vast, deep expanse of the Pacific Ocean and some of the world's highest mountains. The Peruvian Andes rise steeply to snow-capped peaks not far south of the Equator and within a short distance from the sea. East of the mountains lie the lush rain forests of the Amazon Basin. On a flat map the distance across these extremes of climate and topography, from sea over mountains to rain forest, is roughly the distance from New York to Boston, or London to Paris.

The North Coast region lies within the tropics, but the Humboldt, or Peru-Chile, Current flows north from Antarctica in a deep, offshore trough. Air moving eastward across the Pacific normally gathers moisture, is cooled by the upwelling current, and is heavy when it reaches warm continental land. Some water is released before the air mass comes to land; some air rises and drops water in the highlands. The coastal plain is foggy but arid. Normal average annual precipitation on the north coast is about a centimeter, most of which is moisture from mist. Because of the cold current, winds, and fog conditions, the climate is relatively cool. Moist, easterly winds that blow from the Atlantic to the Amazon rain forest are blocked by the Andes, so that they deposit heavy rainfall on the eastern mountains but leave the western heights dry and barren.

In the coastal desert the sand is sometimes windblown into sculptural forms. Hills and mountains that rise from the sands are bare, but scrub growth may dot the pale valleys. The landscape changes slightly in some areas but remains stark. Where the desert is crossed by rivers flowing from the highlands, water permits irrigation and crop cultivation, and the sands are slashed with patches of green. North Coast rivers generally have a larger volume than other Peruvian rivers, are located near each other, and are more or less perpendicular to the coastline. Algarrobo (Prosopis spp.) and other scrub trees and growth, usually called monte, often appear in the margins of cultivation, and cane and marsh grass grow near rivers. Some valleys have places with high water tables, underground aquifers, or springs, and there is vegetation, even cultivation. Sunken gardens can be developed where there is groundwater; sometimes wells are dug; and occasionally there is a lagoon. During winter (July-August), certain areas of the coast, especially upper slopes (250–800 m) near the sea, are enveloped by sea fogs that precipitate enough moisture to sustain seasonal plants; in very moist years these lomas support cultivated crops. In the past, guanacos—wild camelids, relatives of the llama—grazed and were hunted on lomas. Sheltered yunga (warm valley) zones, at 500–2,500 m, are warmer and sunnier than the coast and good for certain crops.

Today the common crop of the lower North Coast is sugarcane, an introduced plant. More of the landscape was once green with varieties of flora. Animals were attracted, notably foxes and deer, both of which are significant in Moche art and can still be found in the area. Monkeys, jaguars and pumas (and other, smaller felines), boa constrictors, iguanas, parrots, and macaws were common in some places. There is still an occasional constrictor or parrot. Writing in the sixteenth century, the Spaniard Pedro de Cieza de León (1959 [1550, 1553]:316–321) remarked on the lushness of irrigated valley environments that began to be destroyed soon thereafter by Spanish demands for charcoal and other needs, and by imported European animals and crops (see also Briceño 1999a; Dillehay and Netherly 1983; Shimada 1994a:36–44). These regions are now mostly desert, with some exceptions: central La Leche Valley, for example, has some subtropical, thorny evergreen forest (part of the valley is now a nature preserve, Reserva Nacional de Laquipampa), as does the upper Piura Valley, which gets significant rainfall; in the upper Zaña Valley, an unusual climatic pocket has remnant subtropical and temperate evergreen forest.

Along the coast, trade was moved by water on rafts, usually made of bundles of rushes, or on land by men with tumplines or llamas with saddlebags. Human and llama traffic journeyed between coast and mountains. The microenvironments of the highlands, which change dramatically with altitude, offered additional resources. Most important, mountains provided water for agriculture, which was critical to subsistence on the coast. The sun rising beyond the mountains added mythic and religious meaning: mountains, sun, and water are vital elements in Andean cosmology. The fact that rivers originated in other people's lands added pragmatic political implications.

The cold waters of the Humboldt Current normally constitute one of the world's richest fishing grounds, perhaps the richest, for fish thrive in cold water. Peru has supplied a fifth of the world's catch for both food and fish-meal fertilizer (Richardson 1994:10–12; see also Murphy 1936, I:286–295). In the low temperatures of the current, mineral salts and nitrogen compounds support a vast quantity of phytoplankton; organisms that feed on this minute vegetation provide food for fish, notably vast numbers of anchovetas, on which seabirds and sea lions feed.

El Niño and Other Dangers

The coast of Peru is the epicenter for the sporadic El Niño, which has deeply affected it many times, as is evident in the archaeological record (Dillehay 2001:268–270; Moseley, Donnan, and Keefer 2008; Morales Gamarra 2000a; Sandweiss and Quilter 2008). The ravishings of mega-Niños between AD 450 and 750 were surely a factor in the decline of Moche civilization.

El Niño was named by Peruvian fishermen for the Christ Child because it normally arrives around Christmas every three to seven years with varying intensity and duration. Long explained as a warm countercurrent running south from Ecuador and intruding into the Humboldt Current, a strong El Niño is now known to be part of a much larger and more complex climatic pattern (Glantz 2001; Suplee 1999). When it is severe, local warming of waters off the Peruvian coast coincides with sea-surface anomalies over the entire eastern equatorial Pacific, where there is an increase in sea-surface temperature and in near-surface air temperatures. The combination is known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle/phenomenon. El Niño is usually brief and its effects minor, but it can last for a year or more with varying intensity, duration, and pattern, and when intense, it can have calamitous impact. The worst twentieth–century ENSO events occurred in 1925–26, 1982–83, and 1997–98. The north coast is most severely afflicted, but the entire coast can be affected. Indeed, El Niño events can alter weather worldwide, even slowing Earth's rotational momentum.

The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes (1989:15) describes El Niño as "beating against the Peruvian coast, suffocating the anchovies and algae . . .; hurling dead fish against the walls of the continent . . . water sinking water . . . the cold ocean drowned by the hot ocean." El Niño–warmed water kills phytoplankton, forcing fish, birds, and sea mammals to migrate or starve. Sea lions raid fishing nets, competing with fishermen. Horrendous photographs from the 1997–98 event show bays choked with millions of dead fish and offshore islands littered with sea lion skeletons. The 1972–73 El Niño event was not a major one, but it ravaged North Coast fishing (El Niño can shift fishing grounds), and Peru has not fully regained its role as a major fishing nation.

The differences in atmospheric pressure and temperature may cause torrential rains on the coast and in the western highlands, bringing devastating floods and inundations of sediment, sand, and mud; carrying off people, animals, and houses; washing out cemeteries, fields, canals, and roads; and destroying settlements and crops. Damage in the North Coast region in 1982–83 was caused largely by rain. In 1997–98 the far north had heavy rain—as much as 15 cm a day around Piura—but in most valleys high water did not come from the sky but from flooding rivers racing down the mountains, rushing through normally dry beds, and ripping out bridges and irrigation systems. A long-term effect of ENSO events is the deposit of massive amounts of sand and the altering of shoreline. Windblown over fields and canals, sand can do severe damage and destroy farming areas. The Early Moche site of Dos Cabezas was abandoned because of the accumulation of aeolian sand, independent of immediate El Niño conditions (Donnan 2007; Moseley, Donnan, and Keefer 2008:83–85).

Some benefits come from El Niño. Where there is water, the desert turns green, allowing farmers to produce short-term, floodwater cultivation in normally dry places, and providing vegetation for animals to graze. In the 1982–83 and 1997–98 events a lake with waterfowl engulfed much of the Pampa de Paiján, and another lake virtually covered the Sechura Desert, a normally waterless, 125 km coastal expanse to the north (Briceño 1999a:23; Gálvez and Briceño 2001:144; Makowski 1994b:101; Murro 1994:20; Suplee 1999:77–80). Mosquitos breed, however (there have been outbreaks of malaria), and other insects and diseases can appear.

Scientific techniques for predicting El Niño are now being developed, but ancient coastal peoples would have recognized signs of a coming Niño event. Winter weather would have been warmer, and some plants and sea life would behave differently. Sharks, warm-water fish, are prevalent in El Niño waters, and sea turtles and manta rays also show up. Shrimp can be harvested offshore, where it is normally too cold for them. Anchovetas are dispersed by the warm waters, but the dispersal is preceded by a greater than usual concentration of the small fish. In 1997, months before the full impact of the ENSO event, exotic fish appeared in coastal markets, replacing the usual species. After the 1997–98 El Niño was predicted, preparations on the north coast included storm drains and roofs so that excavations at important archaeological sites would not be flooded. Current excavations were saved, but damage was severe in many places.

Other natural events also disturb the North Coast world. Water from the highlands may be too little for crop cultivation—there have been disastrous droughts (Bawden 1996:267–269; Sandweiss and Quilter 2008; Shimada et al. 1991)—or so much that it causes floods and landslides. Mountains are still forming in this volatile region, and earthquakes occur. A quake in 1970 that caused tragic calamity in the mountains also leveled half of the coastal town and fishing center of Chimbote (Casma Valley). The quakes that rumble mountains and valleys may also bring about rough seas, causing further damage and loss of human life.

Environments have assets, gifts, demands, and dangers that inhabitants factor into systems of livelihood and belief. Trying to understand the world that the Moche people lived in, we question what they would have responded to, benefited by, or feared, and how they would have dealt with these elements.

Moche Achievements

Moche culture belonged to what archaeologists call "the Central Andean tradition." The Central Andes was one of two pre-Hispanic areas of high culture, the other being Mesoamerica (which includes parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador). Both are regions of great geographical diversity with some cultural unity. The Central Andes, which produced notable development from the fourth millennium BC until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, includes the western part of what is now Peru and the adjacent parts of Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as northern Argentina and parts of Chile; the peripheral regions lacked significant architecture but had other outstanding achievements and some contact with the core region.

Moche remains are found for some 600 km along the Pacific coast of Peru from the Huarmey Valley north to the Piura Valley. At the approximate center of the Moche world, in the Moche Valley, lies the best-known and most explored site, the Cerro Blanco Complex, known also as Moche or Huacas de Moche, with two massive huacas at the foot of a hill. A huaca (from the Quechua language of the later Incas) is a sacred place, object, or ancestor—an entity with spiritual power and life; the word is often applied to ancient structures.

The Moche Valley and the next valley to the north, the Chicama, are separated from the more northern Jequetepeque Valley by the Pampa de Paiján. North of the Jequetepeque Valley, a complex of valleys—La Leche, Reque, and Zaña—leads to Lambayeque, which is separated by the Sechura Desert from the Piura Valley in the north. South of the Moche Valley, some evidence for Moche presence occurs in the Virú, Chao, Santa, Nepeña, Casma, and Huarmey Valleys, which are smaller than the northern ones. Cultural and stylistic variations are evident between the valleys north of Chicama, and the Chicama Valley and south.

In many of these valleys the Moche people used thousands of sun-dried adobe bricks to build enormous ceremonial edifices with mural paintings and reliefs. With skill and innovation, Moche artisans, surely the most extraordinary of their era in the Andes, worked gold, silver, and copper—often inlaid with shell and stone—to make handsome, symbolic ornaments, and they wove textiles in complex techniques and designs. The ceramic vessels that they produced with skill and artistry reveal a great deal about the Moche; the only other peoples whose ceramics are so informative are the Classic Greeks and the Maya of Mesoamerica.

Archaeology and Images

The Greeks and the Maya had writing; the Moche, like most New World peoples, did not. The Greeks and the Maya had three-dimensional sculpture; the Moche people had virtually none. The Moche expressed, with symbolic language in metal and clay, what the others presented in writing on paper and stone. Images on Moche ceramics, published from collections worldwide, have long been a source of information to be interpreted. Recently uncovered murals have added striking images to the visual evidence. The garments that figures wear, the objects they hold, the gestures they make, and the contexts in which they appear all offer clues to the culture. Some images are quite realistic, but in other instances, myth is obviously depicted, and some images seem to combine myth and ritual; others show ritual without evident reference to myth.

Most known Moche objects with rich iconography come from unofficial digs by huaqueros (those who loot huacas). Conjectures can be made about these objects, but an enormous amount of information about their use and the places they were found has been lost through extensive and continuing looting of Moche sites. Huaquero pits are mentioned in virtually every modern account of scientific excavation, which provides firsthand, contextual information on the people and the reality behind the ceramic scenes. Excavating the remains of cities reveals the spaces in which people lived, worked, worshiped, and were buried, as well as the ritual and practical objects they used. Archaeological material indicates social structure and relationships, and also trade, social intercourse, and conflict. An important aspect of archaeology is the evidence for burial customs, which reveal beliefs, activities, and the diversified structure of society.

A fruitful period of legitimate Moche excavation began in 1987, when, in a rescue operation after finding looters in the Huaca Rajada, a burial platform at Sipán (in the Lambayeque drainage), Walter Alva began work on a tomb that was the richest yet excavated scientifically. Continuing work there, under Alva and Luis Chero Zurita, has found other graves with remarkable metal objects and other material providing rare information. At the time of the Sipán discovery, other Moche excavations were under way. Christopher Donnan was ending a project with Guillermo Cock and others at Pacatnamu (begun in the 1980s) before starting work with Luis Jaime Castillo at San José de Moro, both sites in the Jequetepeque Valley. Castillo continues to excavate at long-occupied San José, and Donnan and Cock have since excavated at the Jequetepeque site of Dos Cabezas.

In 1991 a project began at Huaca de la Luna, in the Cerro Blanco Complex, under the direction of Santiago Uceda and Ricardo Morales. That same year Régulo Franco, César Gálvez, and Segundo Vásquez began work in the Chicama Valley at Huaca Cao Viejo. Both of these undertakings, and others, are unearthing remarkable architecture, murals, burials, and offerings. Steve Bourget, after working at Huaca de la Luna, excavated at Castillo de Huancaco, in the Virú Valley; at Huaca el Pueblo, near Úcupe, in the Zaña Valley; and, more recently, at Dos Cabezas. Spaces like those inhabited by lords depicted on ceramic bottles are being found in actual architecture, and evidence for sacrificial rites uncovered by Bourget and others at Huaca de la Luna may explain certain ceramic scenes. Material from recent excavations—for example, the magnificent burial of the Lady of Huaca Cao Viejo (Chapter 12)—is constantly modifying our ways of perceiving the Moche culture.

The Early Questioners

Moche remains have long attracted archaeologists and other scholars as well as travelers and collectors (Arsenault 1995a, 1995b; Moseley 1992:16–21; Shimada 1994a:13–34; Uceda and Mujica 1994). Interest began in the nineteenth century as people became curious about other, exotic worlds. The Cerro Blanco Complex was described in 1855 by two serious, adventurous Europeans, Mariano Eduardo Rivero and Johann Tschudi, and by the American Ephraim George Squier in 1877. It was the setting for some of the earliest archaeology in the Americas when, in 1895, the German archaeologist Max Uhle explored the complex for the University Museum (of the University of Pennsylvania) and then excavated, for the University of California in 1899–1900, the two large structures there, Huaca del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), and the summit of Cerro Blanco (Menzel 1977; see also Benson 1997a, Donnan 1965, Kroeber 1925, Morales Gamarra 2000b, J. Rowe 1954). The "Sun" and "Moon" designations, used by Squier, are of unknown origin; in an early reference Huaca del Sol is called "Huaca Capuxaida" (Zevallos 1994:18). Uhle, one of the first to explore temporal sequences of style and culture, also worked at Pachacamac, a major Central Coast site, and at Tiahuanaco, in the Bolivian highlands. He wrote that of all the cultures that developed in the Americas, none achieved greater distinction than that of the Moche.

The Humboldt Current was named for German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled in the Americas around 1800 and published descriptions of antiquities he saw. A strong German interest in pre-Hispanic America is attested by splendid collections of artifacts, many of them Moche, begun in the nineteenth century by travelers and businessmen and now housed in German museums. Hans Heinrich (or Enrique) Brüning went to Peru in 1875 and spent 50 years there, mostly in the North Coast region, photographing flora and fauna, and studying the life of native peoples and the remains of the local language (Schaedel 1988; see also Larco Hoyle 2001, I; Salas 2002; Zevallos 1946). Brüning discovered Huaca Fortaleza at Pampa Grande (in the Lambayeque drainage of the Reque Valley), and he founded what is now the Museo Arqueológico Nacional Brüning de Lambayeque with a fine collection of North Coast objects. In 1902–3 Adolf Baessler, whose collection of Moche ceramics forms part of the large American collection of the Ethnologisches Museum (formerly Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde) in Berlin, published drawings of Moche pottery by Wilhelm von den Steinen (see Figure 9.1). Gerdt Kutscher, a major contributor to Moche iconographic studies at midcentury, described ceramic scenes and provided drawings that are rich visual resources. Excavations in the 1950s by Hans Dietrich Disselhoff and Heinrich Ubbelohde-Doering are also important to the archaeological record.

In Peru the Larco family has added greatly to the knowledge and appreciation of Moche art. Victor Larco Herrera formed a pioneering collection of ancient Peruvian art and founded a museum in Lima with a publication, Revista de Arqueología, begun in 1923; the collection went eventually to the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Lima. In 1903 Rafael Larco Herrera had begun collecting Moche objects at Hacienda Chiclín, his sugarcane plantation in the Chicama Valley. In 1920 he gave most of his objects to the Museo del Prado, Madrid; they are now in the Museo de América, Madrid. In 1925 he acquired two other collections and gave them to his son, Rafael Larco Hoyle, who developed an avid interest and began to collect artifacts, do fieldwork, and publish definitions and interpretations of Moche and other North Coast cultures. (Larco Hoyle's 1938 and 1939 publications were sumptuously republished in 2001; see also Berrin 1997; Castillo and Donnan 1994a:147–148; Salas 2002; and Uceda and Mujica 1997:11–12). Larco Hoyle was a pioneer in formulating the prehistory of the southern North Coast valleys and re-creating the life of ancient Peruvian peoples, especially the Moche. He defined Moche and other North Coast styles, and used ethnographic and other sources to identify human physical types, fauna, and flora. In 1926 he inaugurated the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera at Chiclín, and in 1949 he moved the collection to Lima to establish the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera, where, after his death, his daughter, Isabel Larco de Álvarez-Calderón, continued work with the collection. His grandson Andrés Álvarez-Calderón Larco is now the very active executive director. The Larco collection is probably the most important collection of Moche art.

Larco Hoyle excavated in the Chicama, Santa, Virú, and Jequetepeque Valleys and at the Cerro Blanco Complex. Using stratigraphic and associative data from Moche burials—along with comments on style, shape, and technical changes—he established a sequence for the finely made and decorated Moche ceramics found mostly in the Chicama and Moche Valleys and valleys to the south (Larco Hoyle 1948; see also Benson 2003, Donnan 1978, Sawyer 1966:24–33). Larco Hoyle's sequence is based largely on pottery shapes, particularly the stirrup-spout form, and is designated Phase I–V, or Moche I–V. This is still the standard designation for ceramics from Chicama south, and the phase designations are often applied to Moche culture generally.

Ceramics of Phases I and II, fairly closely related to the earlier Cupisnique style (Chapter 2), are frequently modeled in a compact, sculptural manner, and sometimes inlaid with shell or stone. Phase I has slightly more thickness at the end of the spout than Phase II does. Phase III, with a slightly flared spout end, sometimes deliberately evokes an earlier style; it also presents new techniques and motifs that will be put together in Phase IV to form a group of fairly standardized themes. Phase IV is the best-known, best-represented phase. Phase V displays changes in style, with some new subject matter and old motifs mixed in new ways in a particularly dense drawing style. The alterations show the evolution of southern style and subject matter, and reflect social, political, and religious changes (Benson 2003).

The Larco sequence does not work in the northern valleys, where change took a different pattern, and art had a somewhat different expression. The sequence itself does not need revision, but alterations must be made in its application; it cannot be used for a strict chronology because phases lasted longer in some places and started sooner in one place than in another. Larco Hoyle was aware of such limitations, although when he developed the sequence, little was known of the Moche presence in the north, and modern dating techniques were not yet in use. Uhle had not known of Moche sites north of Chicama. Larco Hoyle did know something of the Jequetepeque and Lambayeque Valleys, but not as integral parts of the Moche world; the far north began to be known before his death, and he wrote on Vicús, the style found with the Moche style in the Piura Valley. With increased knowledge, the picture has become complex (Castillo and Donnan 1994a:148–153; Castillo and Uceda 2008; Donnan 2001; Donnan and McClelland 1999:20–22; Jiménez 2000:78–84; Kaulicke 1992, 1994, 2000; Makowski et al. 1994). Early Moche (southern Phases I and II), Middle Moche (southern III and early IV), and Late Moche (southern late IV and V) are designations now used for the north, paralleling Larco's sequence. Recent excavations indicate that northern sites continued to produce Early Moche after those in the south had begun to produce III and IV. It is now clear that Phase IV was essentially a southern phenomenon, and V, or Late Moche, was largely northern.

The well-known Peruvian archaeologist Julio César Tello visited North Coast ruins and excavated at the early sites of Cerro Sechín (Casma Valley) and Chavín de Huántar (eastern highlands). His 1938 volume of photographs of Moche art in Lima museums is still a useful corpus. Tello wrote of Moche and other cultures in a 1923 publication based on Wira Kocha, a major god or supernatural being in Inca times. Tello was among the first to correlate ethnohistory and folklore with images and archaeology to postulate the Andean mythic world. Another Peruvian who studied and also made drawings of Moche ceramic art was Arturo Jiménez Borja.

For the University of California, Alfred Kroeber investigated the Cerro Blanco Complex in 1925 and 1926, and published Uhle-excavated objects. Wendell Bennett's excavations, for Yale, in the Lambayeque and Virú Valleys were published in 1939. The first large-scale enterprise that included Moche culture was the Virú Valley Project, 1946–48. It coordinated the work of archaeologists from six institutions working independently under the aegis of the Institute of Andean Research and the Viking Fund (Bennett 1948, 1950; Collier 1955; Ford and Willey 1949; Strong and Evans 1952; Willey 1953; see also Arsenault 1995b:446–447). The aim of the project was to determine "the exact nature of the relationship between man, a biological and cultural being, and a favorable but definitely circumscribed environment, the Virú Valley, from man's earliest advent to the year 1956" (Strong and Evans 1952:3). The undertaking did not achieve this vast ambition but did produce valuable results. For instance, the Tomb of the Warrior Priest, excavated by Duncan Strong and Clifford Evans in the Huaca de la Cruz, was the first rich, unlooted Moche tomb that archaeologists had found.

The Chan Chan–Moche Valley Project, 1969–75, directed by Michael Moseley and Carol Mackey, and sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, set out to reconstruct the prehistoric occupation of the valley and establish continuity or discontinuity, an ambition only somewhat more modest than that of the Virú Valley Project (Bawden 1982, 1983; Donnan and Mackey 1978; Hastings and Moseley 1975; Mackey and Hastings 1982; Moseley 1975a, 1975b, 1975c; Moseley and Day 1982; S. Pozorski 1976, 1979a, 1979b; S. Pozorski and Pozorski 2003; T. Topic 1977; see also Arsenault 1995b:448–450).

Izumi Shimada (1994a) began excavations at the northern site of Pampa Grande in 1973, and work has continued there on and off since then. More recent discoveries and developments will be discussed in succeeding chapters.

New museums have also come into being. The Museo de la Nación, in Lima, has a fine collection, and the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, in Lambayeque, has exhibited treasures from Sipán for some years; there are also new site museums at Sipán, Huaca Cao Viejo, and the Cerro Blanco Complex, and a regional museum is planned for the Zaña Valley, which will show remains from Huaca el Pueblo, which are fewer than, but as fine as, those from Sipán.

Understanding the Moche Worlds

With no written Moche texts, we sort through not only Moche remains, but information from other times and places that might help us understand the Moche, always keeping in mind that although there are general similarities among many cultures, variations are infinite, other sources can rarely provide entirely satisfactory explanations, and our very different worldview precludes our exact understanding. The use of these sources must be a highly selective process.

Andean peoples, however, are very conservative and have retained customs and beliefs over long periods of time; moreover, certain concepts, such as ritual and the importance of supernatural beings, seem to be fairly general throughout the ancient New World. In the Andes a dualistic perception of nature, human behavior, and social structure has had continuing importance. Dualism is inherent in the Andean landscape—in mountains and sea, agriculture and fishing, drought and El Niño—and it seems also to be inherent in social structure, reflecting the natural world.

Ethnographic data from the North Coast and farther afield, recorded in the last hundred or so years, can be consulted for patterns of myth, ritual, and conventions of behavior. Ethnologist John Gillin's work in the 1940s at the modern town of Moche has been useful in reconstructing daily life at the ancient site there. Alfred Narváez's recent volume on Lambayeque oral traditions is a valuable contribution. Findings on North Coast shamanism by Bonnie Glass-Coffin, Donald Joralemon, Laura Larco, Susan Ramírez, Douglas Sharon, and others can be consulted when interpreting Moche grave goods and ceramic scenes. Contributions of ethnographers working in the humid lowland forests of Amazonia (Peter Roe, Henry Wassén, and others), and the high altitudes (Catherine Allen, Peter Gose, Gary Urton, and others) can also relate to the Moche world because of long-lasting, widespread practices.

Chronicles from the Spanish Colonial era can be helpful (see Pillsbury 2008), even though they were written nearly a thousand years after the Moche florescence. Of course, the Spanish conquistadors, priests, and administrators who wrote them had their own agendas and prejudices, and did not always ask the questions that we would like answered, or may not have interpreted with complete accuracy what they observed in the meetings between two very different worlds. Even if the information were always valid, it cannot be applied directly. In addition to time difference, the information concerns a culture dominated by a highland people, the Incas, and there are basic contrasts in mindset between coastal and highland cultures. Nevertheless, Guaman Poma de Ayala's (before 1615) illustrations and descriptions of people and customs are valuable, as are the North Coast experiences of Antonio de la Calancha (1638) and Pablo José de Arriaga (1621), and the rich information of Pedro de Cieza de León (1550, 1553), Juan de Betanzos (1551), Cristóbal de Molina (1575), and Bernabé Cobo (1653) (see also J. Rowe 1946, 1948). Important for the Andean tradition is the Huarochirí manuscript, from the Central Coast, ca. 1600, which comprises information gathered by Francisco de Ávila (Salomon and Urioste 1991). Other sources include Miguel Caballo Balboa's Miscelánea antarctica (1586), from Lambayeque, and several later manuscripts (see J. Rowe 1948; Lizarraga 1968 [before 1615]; Narváez 2001). A late-eighteenth-century compendium of watercolors of North Coast flora, fauna, geography, and people was sponsored by Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón (1978, 1985, 1994; see also Pillsbury and Trever 2008), Bishop of Trujillo, who also commissioned the mapping of ancient monuments, including Huaca del Sol at the Cerro Blanco Complex.

Ethnohistoric sources have been used by many Moche scholars, from Tello on. Anne-Marie Hocquenghem's book on Moche iconography includes an admirable compendium of material from ethnohistory and ethnography. Peruvian ethnohistorian María Rostworowski, in her extensive work on Inca and Colonial matters, has used little-known early sources to interpret Moche scenes. Patricia Netherly cites Colonial sources in her studies of the Chimu, the later North Coast people who found Chan Chan, across the Moche Valley from the Cerro Blanco Complex. Her work, especially descriptions of regional ecology and Andean social systems, is valuable for Moche studies.

Knowledge of other Andean archaeology can be useful. Indeed, similar themes recur throughout the Americas, with rough parallels among contemporaneous cultures: Olmec (in Mesoamerica) and Chavín (in Peru), for example, and Aztec and Inca. Some years ago I began to notice traits shared by the Moche and the contemporaneous Maya of Mesoamerica (Benson 1976a, 1978, 1983, 1988a, 2004, 2010; see also Quilter 2002; Uceda 2004). The environments and accomplishments of the Moche and the Maya were very different: the Maya lived in lowland forest, erected stone buildings and sculpture, and did not work metals, but both peoples achieved high development and may have shared some ways of thinking. Both constructed enormous sacred buildings and placed rich burials in them. For both, rulership was a major subject of iconography; military and sacrificial imagery was prominent; and art was focused on an elite world integrated with the "other" world. I make no case for diffusion (but see Cordy-Collins 2001c); however, since the Maya were the only truly literate people in the Americas and the most intensively excavated, it seems worthwhile to examine comparisons for questions about the Moche and the kinds of answers to expect.

Every documented culture has creation stories, supernatural beings, a god concept, and something like a sacred ancestor or culture hero. Virtually every known culture has a ritual calendar and liturgy, and a history of ritual sacrifice and mortuary practices. Andean thought is based on continuity and conservatism, yet changes in politics and religion, in themes and emphases, obviously occurred within the Moche period. What we know of Moche archaeology and imagery should be evaluated in terms of what all people at a certain stage are concerned with—basically, feeding a growing population in a developing culture—and the endless variations that exist in the problems to be approached and solved.

By Elizabeth P. Benson

Elizabeth P. Benson has published numerous articles, monographs, and catalogue descriptions on the Moche. For many years, she worked with the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, first at the National Gallery of Art and then at Dumbarton Oaks, where she installed the collection and established the pre-Columbian publication and fellowship programs. She has also lectured widely and has taught at American University, the Catholic University of America, Columbia University, and the University of Texas at Austin.