The Moche of Peru
The best way of describing this incredible culture, the Moche (or Muchika), who lie at the very heart of the book, is by republishing an article I did, about the Moche, for a British newspaper.
Read on, if you have a strong stomach.
WAS THIS THE MOST EVIL CIVILISATION IN HISTORY?
The young man waited in a line of shackled prisoners, on a long, ascending ramp. His hands were tied behind his back, and he was naked. The prisoner knew his fate, but he still trembled with fear. His captors had given him a special drug, ulluchu, but this drug wasn’t to quell his nerves – it was to prevent the coagulation of his blood, for a very specific reason.
Gradually, the prisoner shuffled forward, under the baking sun of the Peruvian desert. The bleeding wounds in his legs smarted in the hot, dusty wind: he had already been ritually stabbed. Eventually he reached a flat sacred plaza, quite open to the sky. The walls surrounding him were decorated with vivid murals, depicting a fearsome god in the form of a man-eating tarantula, clutching at severed human heads.
The moment arrived. A magnificently dressed priest, dripping gold and coral and turquoise, stepped forward; the prisoner was forced to his knees. Carefully the priest slashed the prisoner’s throat with a ceremonial knife, a tumi, so that the blood began to seep from his arteries; but the cut was so delicate, and the anti-coagulant drug so effective, the blood ran smoothly yet slowly.
The priest gathered the oozing blood in an ornate metal cup; this cup of gore was presented to the highest priest of all, who drank it with an exultant smile. As the prisoner slowly died, he gazed at all the people gathered to watch. He saw his brother and sister, maybe even his mother, singing and holding hands, and playing ring-a-ring-a-rosy around him.
In the shadowy corners of the plaza, he could also see multiple couples having frenzied sex, glorying in the moment of his extinction. He knew that when he finally slumped to the floor, his body would be defleshed, his boneless corpse hung from the walls, and his skeleton would become a toy, or maybe a dance partner…
I’ll stop there before I ruin your lunch; I will also explain why I have troubled you with these images. Although the preceding paragraphs might sound like a scene from the most lurid horror comic, they are, unfortunately, historical fact. The gruesome ritual I have just described was performed – thousands of times – by a people known as the Moche, who ruled the deserts of north Peru from the 2nd century AD to the 10th. This same ritual is known to scholars, with brutal simplicity, as The Sacrifice Ceremony.
If you’ve never heard of the Moche (the word is pronounced mot-chay), don’t blame your history teacher. It is only in the last few years – even months – that the true horrors of Moche culture have been revealed: horrors that make the Moche perhaps the most evil civilisation ever to disgrace the earth. Horrors that would beggar belief in the pages of an historical thriller.
This is where I come in: my next book focuses on the mightily unsettling Moche. But when I first began my research into these people, tantalised by a few images of eerie ceramics, I had no idea what nightmares I was about to encounter.
The Trail of the Moche begins, for archaeologists and travellers alike, in Peru’s foggy coastal capital, Lima. This is the location of the Rafael Larco museum, housed in an elegant Spanish-colonial palacio.
The Larco museum was founded by Rafael Larco Hoyle. Together with his wealthy, plantation-owning father, Larco was the first explorer to realise that northern Peru contained the buried remains of civilisations easily as intriguing as the celebrated Inca, who inhabited the south. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Larcos gathered an impressive collection of artefacts related to these obscure, northerly civilisations.
Chief among their discoveries were hundreds of curious ceramics from the Sechura desert, and the ancient towns and riverine oases in that wilderness; places which were known to have been founded by an almost-forgotten culture called the Moche, or Muchika.
The reason these ceramics aroused such curiosity was their subject matter. Sex. And death.
Describing this pottery is quite difficult, if you don’t wish to offend. To put it mildly, the pots show, with exuberant detail, people engaged in sodomy, in oral sex, in sex with enemas, in sex with animals, in sex with the gods, in sex with the dead. Half fleshed skeletons are masturbated. Women are lavishly raped. Amputated men abound. Prisoners are bled to death.
These “sex pots” or ceramicas eroticas, soon became a minor cause celebre in archaeological circles – especially in a conservative Catholic country like Peru (only recently have the most lurid been put on public display). The pots were seen as proof that the Moche civilisation had a rich but unsavoury mythology – a filthy imagination, if you like. The scenes on the pots were dismissed as religious hallucinations.
There the matter rested, for decades. But then, about 20 years ago, archaeologists began actively digging up the sullen and crumbling adobe pyramids of the Moche – pyramids which can be found right along the northern Peruvian coast, as I discovered.
And what the archaeologists disinterred was quite startling.
The first major breakthrough came at the so-called Pyramid of the Moon, a vast, bleak, mud-brick Moche pyramid just outside the bustling colonial city of Trujillo, quite near the frigid Pacific ocean (this part of the Peruvian coast is chilled by Antarctic currents – a factor of some significance, as we will see).
In 1995, near the base of this great Pyramid, Canadian archaeologist Steve Bourget uncovered 42 skeletons of young and adolescent men. These violently splayed skeletons showed very distinct wounds – wounds which immediately triggered suspicion in Bourget’s mind.
So he called in a colleague: physical anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University. Verano examined the skeletons as he would a modern murder victim, and what he discerned has revolutionised our perceptions of the Moche. As Verano says:
“The first thing we noticed was the neck bone. Many of the neck bones had slender slash marks right across the front. These cut marks, to access the bone, would have to go through all of the throat – cut through some very vital structures. And so these were not just insignificant nicks, they were a cause of death.”
And that was not all, as Verano explains: “We found cut marks not only on the vertebrae, but cut marks on the leg bones, and on the wrist bones, and the finger bones; basically, from head to toe, these people had cut marks, hundreds of them. Where the cut marks are located are where muscles attach. So the Moche weren’t cutting at the joints and they were not taking the bodies apart. What they were doing was cutting deeply and then pulling the flesh off, pulling the muscles away from the bone.”
In other words, forensic analysis of these skeletons showed that the ceremonies depicted in Moche artefacts were entirely accurate: people were ritually bled to death, via the neck, and then their bodies were ceremonially “defleshed”.
From that moment, the discoveries came thick and fast. Soon afterwards, scientists unearthed Moche nobles buried in costumes exactly matching those of the blood-taking priests on the pots, complete with blood-stained tumi blades. At the same time, heaps of shattered and brutalised skeletons were found near the base of the Pyramid of the Moon: again, the scientists knew that some of the Moche ceramics depicted exactly this process: victims of human sacrifice thrown from the tops of pyramids or mountains.
Meanwhile, other scientists were achieving even more gruesome insights. DNA analysis revealed that the victims and the killers in the Sacrifice Ritual were closely related: it appears the Moche enacted mock battles within their own communities precisely to produce victims for sacrifice: they slaughtered their own brothers and sons. Archaeology further proved that these ceremonies took place amidst feasting and dancing.
Some of the latest revelations of Moche depravity border on the mind-boggling. Many Moche pots and murals depict people with amputations and mutilations, or hideous facial scarring. Moche art seems to celebrate deformity. Forensic scrutiny of Moche skeletons shows that these amputations happened, and they were deliberate, and they were enacted on healthy limbs; furthermore the amputees lived on, long after the pointless surgeries.
The best guess of scientists today is that the Moche willingly cut off their own hands, or feet, or sliced off their lips or noses – as some kind of propitiation of their terrible “Decapitator God”. Probably the people who self-mutilated were regarded as especially holy or noble: Moche artworks imply that these mutilated people might have had special rights to copulate with women – or to rape them.
And it wasn’t just mutilated men who enjoyed sex with Moche women. Several Moche ceramics show felines – probably pumas – coupling with women. Yet again this was once dismissed as fantasy, yet again the truth is: this probably happened. At the Pyramid of the Moon one archaeologist showed me an entire room, decorated with scenes of bestiality: this was probably the place where women had sex with pumas.
The list goes on. The Moche danced with skeletons. They fed corpses – and maybe living people – to flesh-eating beetles. They trained vultures to peck the eyes out of tethered, screaming victims. At sites like El Brujo – “the sorcerer” – on the desolate coast, they incorporated human bones into their buildings.
They also, it seems, liked to kill their own children. Just a year ago, archaeologists at Cerro Cerrillos, in the Lambayeque valley, unearthed the biggest scene of child sacrifice in the New World: many dozens of little corpses.
Poignantly and horrifically the tiny bodies were surrounded by evidence of feasting and drinking – the Moche partied and sang, even as the beating hearts were ripped out of their screaming offspring. It is not surprising that archaeologists, involved in Moche research, commonly suffer from nightmares.
The question raised by all this is, of course, why? How could any civilisation descend to such depravity? The puzzle is particularly piercing, as in many other ways the Moche were advanced: they produced exquisite jewellery, and lofty buildings, they were brilliant irrigators of their coastal deserts.
But maybe that last fact provides a clue. The Moche empire developed in an arid region which is already borderline habitable, and is periodically ravaged by El Nino and La Nina climate change; therefore it suffers from drought, floods and famine, driven by the chilly Pacific. Some experts believe the Moche were terrorised – and sent virtually insane – by the volatile anger of their Gods, who sometimes starved them, and sometimes drowned them.
In other words, they blamed themselves for the simple caprices of nature. Which is a salutary lesson for a modern world determined to be terrorised by its own changing climate.