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Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche

Sacrifice, Violence, and Ideology Among the Moche
The Rise of Social Complexity in Ancient Peru

With a comprehensive presentation of the archaeology and visual culture of a key Moche site, this pioneering book investigates why ritual violence and human sacrifice were central to the development of Moche rulership and the reinforcement of social stratification

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

May 2016
Active (available)
463 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 24 color and 442 b&w photos, 139 b&w illus., 3 b&w maps |

In a special precinct dedicated to ritual sacrifice at Huaca de la Luna on the north coast of Peru, about seventy-five men were killed and dismembered, their remains and body parts then carefully rearranged and left on the ground with numerous offerings. The discovery of this large sacrificial site—one of the most important sites of this type in the Americas—raises fundamental questions. Why was human sacrifice so central to Moche ideology and religion? And why is sacrifice so intimately related to the notions of warfare and capture?

In this pioneering book, Steve Bourget marshals all the currently available information from the archaeology and visual culture of Huaca de la Luna as he seeks to understand the centrality of human sacrifice in Moche ideology and, more broadly, the role(s) of violence in the development of social complexity. He begins by providing a fully documented account of the archaeological contexts, demonstrating how closely interrelated these contexts are to the rest of Moche material culture, including its iconography, the regalia of its elite, and its monumental architecture. Bourget then probes the possible meanings of ritual violence and human sacrifice and their intimate connections with concepts of divinity, ancestry, and foreignness. He builds a convincing case that the iconography of ritual violence and the practice of human sacrifice at all the principal Moche ceremonial centers were the main devices used in the establishment and development of the Moche state.


Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title List

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. A Cultural Landscape
  • Chapter 2. The Moche
  • Chapter 3. The Plaza 3A Sacrificial Site
  • Chapter 4. Platform II
  • Chapter 5. A Ritual Ecology of Power
  • Chapter 6. Children and Warriors
  • Chapter 7. Human Sacrifice and Rulership
  • Chapter 8. Violence in the Rise of Social Complexity
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Qu’est-ce qui constitue le culte dans une religion quelconque? C’est le sacrifice. Une religion qui n’a pas de sacrifice n’a pas de culte proprement dit. Cette vérité est incontestable, puisque, chez les divers peuples de la terre, les cérémonies religieuses sont nées du sacrifice, et que ce n’est pas le sacrifice qui est sorti des cérémonies religieuses.

[What is the ritual aspect of any religion? It is the sacrifice. A religion that has no sacrifice does not have a cultic aspect as such. This truth is undeniable, since, among the various populations of the world, religious ceremonies were born from sacrifice, and it is not sacrifice that came from religious ceremonies.]


Chateaubriand is categorical. Without sacrifice, a religion is without rituals. In short it is not a religion. Since his statement of this position more than two hundred years ago (1802), the practice of sacrifice in its multitudinous forms and functions has been registered in various parts of the world, including Africa (De Heusch 1985), Asia (Bujard 2000; Thachil 1985), Europe (Burkert 1983; Yerkes 1952), Polynesia (Valeri 1985), and throughout the Americas (Matos Moctezuma 1984; Sugiyama 2005; Viau 1997). The principal aim of this book is to explore the complex roles of human sacrifice in Moche culture and ideology. This ritual practice, central to their ideology, also dominated the visual discourse embedded on the walls of their temples and depicted on their portable art. I argue that this iconography—in conjunction with the practice of human sacrifice at all their main ceremonial centers—was the main device used in the establishment and development of the Moche state.

The term “ideology” is used in this book in lieu of the term “religion,” as the exact role of the iconography in this domain is not clear. Although various scholars have perceived the evidence of gods and deities in the depictions of beings with supernatural attributes and zoo-anthropomorphic subjects (Giersz, Makowski, and Przadka 2005; Golte 1994), the archaeology has demonstrated that many of these representations can consistently be associated with real individuals. Beginning as early as 1946, high-status funerary chambers have revealed individuals who once donned the ritual accouterments and carried the paraphernalia seen with those anthropomorphic forms in the iconography (Alva and Donnan 1993; Bourget 2006, 2008; Strong 1947; Strong and Evans 1952). While the increasing evidence of such correspondences between the iconographic representations and archaeological contexts does not negate the existence of religious expressions in Moche visual culture, it demonstrates that social and political aspects were at the center of this system of representation and that the iconography was probably instrumental in reinforcing them. I return to this important aspect later. But from the onset I consider the iconography, in all its forms, primarily as an efficient means for disseminating complex concepts and values directly tied to Moche rulership. That said, it is likely that some of the elements and animal subjects discussed in chapter 5 on the ritual ecology of El Niño conditions delved into broader aspects of Moche religion and cosmology. Highstatus individuals are often depicted with animal parts amalgamated with their anatomy, their clothing, and their regalia. I suggest that by consciously and conspicuously displaying subjects and attributes pertaining to this ritual ecology—such as spiders, crabs, octopi, and seahorses—the ruling elite sought to establish a quasi-symbiotic connection with the natural world and in the process to affirm the legitimacy of their rulership.

Human sacrifice permeates the material record of Moche society. It has been found prominently depicted in all media of Moche visual culture: the ceramic vessels deposited in burials, the painted walls of mud brick huacas, and the regalia of rulers. Physical evidence of human sacrificial rituals has been found in the funerary chambers of the highest-ranking individuals and in the temple plazas. The ubiquity of sacrifice would suggest that it formed the very structure of Moche ritual apparatus and visual discourse. The practice of human sacrifice and its representations certainly provided the most powerful tropes. Given this evidence, the main questions that I posit and address in this volume are:

  • Why was human sacrifice so central to Moche ideology and religion?


  • Why is sacrifice so intimately related to the notions of warfare and capture?

The material and conceptual foundations of this study are provided by a number of sacrificial and funerary contexts that I and others have excavated at Huaca de la Luna since 1994. This architectural complex at the Huacas de Moche site in the Moche Valley ( perhaps the most important ceremonial center of this culture between the fourth and eighth centuries ad) has produced a wealth of information on these subjects (see fig. 2.1). Since the first exploration at Huacas de Moche by Max Uhle in 1899 (Kroeber 1925; Uhle 1913), detailed excavations have been carried out in many parts of the site. Among other things, these undertakings have revealed the long history of the monumental buildings with their numerous transformations and the existence of a sprawling urban sector located between the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna. In order to discuss the importance and the practice of human sacrifice, as well as its political and symbolic significance, I begin by examining the information collected by myself and by my colleagues at the site. I believe that the evidence of human sacrifice recovered at Huaca de la Luna forms an integral part of the development of Moche political structure and the dissemination of its concomitant ideologies. In conjunction with the iconography, the archaeological record thus serves as the basis for discussing the transformation of sacrificial practices and the evolution of rulership during the Early Intermediate Period on the Andean north coast.

This book is organized into four thematic sections consisting of eight chapters. I argue that the Moche paid great attention not only to the physical relationships between ceremonial sites and their environment but also to broader aspects of north coast ecology in order to create symbolic and ideological systems. Because of the purported importance that the Moche devoted to these aspects, the first chapter provides a brief review of the research in the ancient Andes on the general concept of sacred geography. This foundation is essential in order to frame the current undertaking in this field of study. The second part of chapter 1 discusses in general terms the ecological conditions of the north coast and the disruptions brought by environmental conditions associated with strong episodes of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

Chapter 2, in the second section, offers an overview of the knowledge accumulated so far on the Moche and particularly on the Huacas de Moche site. It also relates the context of discovery of the sacrificial site in Plaza 3a of Huaca de la Luna and an additional potential site for sacrifice on the flanks of the Cerro Blanco. The detection of these sacrificial precincts was achieved by conceiving a broader notion of a ritualized landscape through a detailed analysis of the archaeology and iconography. This approach generated a number of hypotheses that were eventually tested in the field and led to the detailed excavation of the Plaza 3a sacrificial site.

The third section of this book focuses specifically on the excavations of Plaza 3a and Platform II at Huaca de la Luna. Study revealed that they formed part of a single architectural project. Chapter 3 is dedicated to the detailed description of the sacrificial site proper within Plaza 3a, including the main results of forensic studies conducted on the human remains. Chapter 4 presents the excavation of the platform and examines its relationship with both the plaza and the sacrificial victims.

The fourth and final section consists of four chapters, which assess and interpret the relationships among the three distinct sets of data collected from the site of Huaca de la Luna and from the visual culture—sacrificial, funerary, and iconographic. These chapters seek to assess the broader role of human sacrifice in Moche society, state development, and ideology. Chapter 5 addresses the prominence of El Niño–related ecological species in the iconography and their part in the fashioning of Moche ideology. Chapter 6 elucidates the presence of three children buried beneath the sacrificial site and demonstrates the cohesiveness of Moche ritual systems. The remaining two chapters address some of the broader issues resulting from this inquiry, such as the function of sacrifice in the development of Moche rulership (chapter 7) and the complex role of ritual violence in the rise of social complexity (chapter 8).


“This book contains important contributions to our understanding of the Moche culture…The arguments and information Bourget presents are well worth reading.”
Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“This book represents a key contribution to contemporary Moche studies and Andean archeology, and more broadly to anyone studying the archeology of ritual violence, ideology, funerary taphonomy, social complexity, and art history, as it provides new dimensions and possibilities for scholars to ponder in the years to come.”
Journal of Anthropological Research

“With a great deal of extremely valuable information, excellent observations, and original insights, this book is certain to be a major contribution to Moche studies. The rise of complex society is a major focus of current anthropological and archaeological research. The Moche were the first group in Andean South America to develop a state organization. Documenting how this came about will be of great interest to scholars working on civilizations in many parts of the world. Bourget’s arguments about the roles played by sacrifice, violence, and ideology will stimulate other scholars to explore how these factors may have been involved in the rise of complexity in other regions.”
Christopher B. Donnan, Emeritus of Anthropology, UCLA, and author of several books on the Moche, including Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru

“This research brings to the archaeological community the first description of a sacrificial site for the Moche civilization. There is no parallel in South America for this type of site, and so the book will stand as a first example of human sacrifice as part of the ritual and political systems of a state-level complex society in the Andes. This book will be a landmark for Moche archaeology, and the role of human sacrifice, ritual violence, and ideology to legitimize rulers will be associated with this case study from the Peruvian north coast for a long time.”
Claude Chapdelaine, Professor of Archaeology, Université de Montréal, and coeditor of Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals: A Study of of Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity