The Moche

December 8th, 2007
Illustration by Jon Foster

The Moche (or Mochica) were a civilisation who occupied the northern Peruvian coast between modern-day Lambayeque and Virú and influenced an area that ranged from Huarmey to Piura in the north. They were a collection of peoples with a similar culture and had no central political authority on a grand scale, i.e. they never formed an empire. Primarily farmers and fishers they built irrigation systems to create fertile areas in the desert and created rafts known as the Caballitos de Totora to fish from. But by far their most important legacy was one of art.

The Moche were skilled artists and potters. They created pottery depicting scenes from everyday life; of hunting, religion, fishing, peoples faces, sexual activities, religious ceremonies and combat. There is no shortage of Moche pottery in museums in Trujillo or Lima, huge amounts of it have been found intact. By far the most impressive art created by the Moche are those works they adorned their monumental pyramids with. Many depict scenes of slaves, sacrifice and their primary God, the decapitator, in his human and spider forms.

Human sacrifice was important to the Moche. They believed it was something that had to be done in order to be blessed with the necessities of life. Victims of sacrifice were the loosing combatants of war. Unlike future civilisations in the region they never sacrificed women or children.

There was some mystery about what had happened to the Moche to cause their collapse. The civilisation seemed to disappear only to be replaced by the reborn Chimú about 100 years later. This mystery now seems to have been solved, with an explanation of why the Moche were so keen on sacrifice thrown in too. As many on the Pacific coast of the Americas are aware, the El Niño phenomenon and its cyclic dry and wet periods can cause a lot of trouble to those who live there. The extremes in weather would have shattered Moche society, their faith in religion lost; sacrifices not preventing droughts and then flooding destroying crops. What resources were left after the period known as the Super El Niño were then fought over until the Moche tore their civilisation apart.

In this video you can see a reconstruction of the monumental Huaca del Sol, a truncated pyramid created by the Moche as the centre of their civilisation.

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