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Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru

Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru

An examination of the archaeological evidence for ancient Peruvian sacrificial offerings.

July 2001
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227 pages | 6 x 9 | 66 halftones, 47 line drawings, 3 maps, 2 charts |

Propitiating the supernatural forces that could grant bountiful crops or wipe out whole villages through natural disasters was a sacred duty in ancient Peruvian societies, as in many premodern cultures. Ritual sacrifices were considered necessary for this propitiation and for maintaining a proper reciprocal relationship between humans and the supernatural world.

The essays in this book examine the archaeological evidence for ancient Peruvian sacrificial offerings of human beings, animals, and objects, as well as the cultural contexts in which the offerings occurred, from around 2500 B.C. until Inca times just before the Spanish Conquest. Major contributions come from the recent archaeological fieldwork of Steve Bourget, Anita Cook, and Alana Cordy-Collins, as well as from John Verano's laboratory work on skeletal material from recent excavations. Mary Frame, who is a weaver as well as a scholar, offers rich new interpretations of Paracas burial garments, and Donald Proulx presents a fresh view of the nature of Nasca warfare. Elizabeth Benson's essay provides a summary of sacrificial practices.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments (Elizabeth P. Benson and Anita G. Cook)
  • Chapter 1. Why Sacrifice? (Elizabeth P. Benson)
  • Chapter 2. Decapitation in Cupisnique and Early Moche Societies (Alana Cordy-Collins)
  • Chapter 3. Blood and the Moon Priestesses: Spondylus Shells in Moche Ceremony (Alana Cordy-Collins)
  • Chapter 4. Blood, Fertility, and Transformation: Interwoven Themes in the Paracas Necropolis Embroideries (Mary Frame)
  • Chapter 5. Children and Ancestors: Ritual Practices at the Moche Site of Huaca de la Luna, North Coast of Peru (Steve Bourget)
  • Chapter 6. Ritual Uses of Trophy Heads in Ancient Nasca Society (Donald A. Proulx)
  • Chapter 7. Huari D-Shaped Structures, Sacrificial Offerings, and Divine Rulership (Anita G. Cook)
  • Chapter 8. The Physical Evidence of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Peru (John W. Verano)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Elizabeth P. Benson is a Research Associate of the Institute of Andean Studies, Berkeley. Anita G. Cook is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Catholic University of America.


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For many people in the modern Western world, making a sacrifice means either giving without receiving or giving up something valuable for a cause that may benefit others. For earlier societies almost everywhere, offerings were made for the greater good. Animals were sacrificed, and many kinds of treasured things were offered. The most valuable offering was human sacrifice, and throughout the world, there has been ritual human sacrifice at some time in history. Blood was the symbol of life, of animation, of nourishment, the most important offering that could be given to the natural and supernatural elements of the world that gave humankind nourishment and allowed survival. The sacrificial nourishing of sacred beings made life possible. At certain stages in cultural development, it was the way that a people thought that its cosmology could be made to work. Understanding sacrifice is an important means of knowing a culture, its worldview, and its religion.

The Andes had no known form of indigenous writing, so the evidence for sacrifice and many other activities must come from other sources. The early Spanish chroniclers recorded what had been described to them about life in Inca times; their accounts include frequent references to "sacrifice" and "offering." Some doubt has been expressed about these accounts, however, for they were influenced by a European, Catholic point of view, and the chroniclers did not ask the right questions about many things that we today would like explained. However, pictorial evidence for sacrifice has long been known. The Incas made little in the way of figurative art, but existing pre-Inca depictions give visual evidence for sacrifice on ceramics and textiles, on wooden and metal objects. Examples of archaeological evidence are now accumulating in the data from recent excavations in a number of places. Most of the archaeological evidence for human sacrifice in the Andes--most clearly among the Inca and the Moche--is very recent.

The contributions to this volume cover a range of time from Cupisnique, early in the first millennium B.C., to the Huari Empire, which collapsed at the end of the first millennium A.D., and there are also references to earlier cultures and to the Chimú and Inca empires. Each author addresses the theme of sacrifice in its various forms: images of ritual activities associated with these sacrificial practices, material offerings as sacrifice, and the physical evidence of human and animal sacrifice. This book should serve as a compilation of significant research on sacrifice and related practices. In each article, reference is made to depictions of sacrifice in mural art or on pottery and other media; now, in most cases, the authors can link the images with archaeological remains. With a growing body of knowledge about Andean forms of sacrifice, the authors of this volume begin to unravel the significance of sacrifice in the lives of the peoples studied. An analysis of the role of sacrifice in the Andes has yet to be written; with the research presented here, and with future work, this should be possible.

Cupisnique, Chavín, and Pucará sculptures, and later Nasca, Moche, and Huari images on textiles, ceramics, and other media, show supernatural beings holding human heads. The elaborately embroidered garments placed in rich Paracas burials in the south-coast desert depict beings with knives and human heads. Mary Frame explores this iconography on block-design, embroidered, mummy-bundle textiles. She describes the figures as engaged in bloodletting activities, including autosacrifice, and interprets the imagery as showing a process that transforms the recent dead to ancestor and animal counterparts. Paracas sacrifice iconography has until now eluded interpretation; this provocative reading opens new avenues for future research.

Painted Nasca ceramics portray deities whose bodies are decorated with detached heads. Donald Proulx indicates that, although "trophy" heads are bound or depicted in many Andean cultures, the south-coast Paracas and Nasca peoples are the only known societies to have meticulously prepared severed heads. He reviews the evidence and suggests that warfare was endemic and that the Nasca practice of head-taking and the use of severed heads had ritual significance beyond that of war trophies, a situation in distinct contrast to the practices of the north-coast Cupisnique (Cordy-Collins, "Decapitation," this volume) and the Moche (Cordy-Collins, Bourget, and Verano, this volume).

The depiction of sacrificial rituals and related activities is a major theme in the repertory of images painted on fine Moche funerary ceramics from the north (see Bourget, this volume, and Cordy-Collins, both articles, this volume). Now, archaeological excavation and its forensic evidence are beginning to produce an accumulation of concrete examples of sacrifice. A rare and early cache of Moche trophy heads is discussed by Alana Cordy-Collins (in her chapter on decapitation). Archaeological evidence for mass sacrifice at Moche is described here by Steve Bourget and by John Verano.

A recurrent theme in this book is the connection between sacrifice and funerary rites. Anita Cook addresses the subject of sacrificers in Huari imagery and their connection to death, funerary rituals, burial, and regeneration. In this instance, the iconography, above-ground temple architecture, and below-ground burial cists are linked in a cycle that suggests the involvement of the Huari elite class in human sacrifice.

The last stages of pre-Hispanic Peruvian culture are not covered in detail here, but there is strong evidence that quantities of bodies accompanied high-status Chimú burials at Chan Chan, in post-Moche times on the north coast (Benson, this volume), and a number of individual capac hucha offerings of young people have now been found throughout the Inca empire (Benson, this volume, and Verano, this volume). Child sacrifice is a recurrent theme not only in the Andes but in much of the world.

This book is based on a symposium organized by the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington in September 1997, covering more than a thousand years between Cupisnique and Huari. The Spondylus chapter, by Alana Cordy-Collins, was not presented at the Pre-Columbian Society symposium but at an earlier Denver Art Museum symposium, which was not published. The chapter is included here because its subject is related to sacrifice. Indeed, most of the chapters in this volume mention Spondylus (Spondylus spp.) in relation to sacrifice.



“This is indeed a significant contribution that contains an immense amount of new evidence. . . . The authors offer plentiful support for the view that human sacrifice is a very ancient and important, though shocking, Andean tradition.”
William J Conklin, Research Associate for the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., the Field Museum, Chicago, and the Institute of Andean Studies, Berkeley


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