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Moche Human Sacrifice Code

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Owing its existence to the South American society, Moche culture was in practice from 200 to 750 BC-AD. Several sites have been unearthed in the arid north coast where Peru stands today. These sites were lodged between the Andes Mountain and the Pacific Ocean. The Moche people were excellent in their artworks and produced adobe architecture, metallurgy and ceramics, which were quite impressive to the eye. Some of these pieces of art reflect the kind of life the Moche people led. It is quite evident from these paintings that human sacrifice was prevalent (Hirst, par. 1). Moche came across as a complex society that practiced human sacrifice. This has been confirmed by evidence of adult males found in their pyramids by archeologists (Science daily, par. 1). There has been controversy on who these males were and scholars have come up with two theories. One group of scholars proposes that Moche sacrificial victims were elite members of society who engaged in ritual combat.  In contrast, others propose that sacrificial victims were captives taken in military conflicts between the Moche and other groups. This case study seeks to evaluate these compelling theories.

Evaluation of the Moche Human Sacrifice Code theories

Archeologists have dug up evidence with some being quite distinct. The most variable evidence to be unearthed has victims who when compared to others are least similar. These have been dug up at Huaca de la Luna (pyramid of the moon) in the Moche valley. This sheds light into the second theory that the victims of human sacrifice were captives taken in military conflicts between the Moche and other groups (Sutter and Cortez 521-527). Many of the Moche paintings depict battles where it is also evident that they captured their opponents’ warriors owing to the painted trail.

Iconographic studies conducted on these paintings also show that the captured warriors were later sacrificed. This practice initially seemed ritualistic but further excavations have proved otherwise. Remains of the elite, who acted as anthropomorphic deities, have been excavated in Sican, San Jose de Moro and Sipan sites in Moche. Further excavations have unearthed brutally sacrificed adult males in the Huaca de la Luna, Dos Cabezas, and Cao Viejo sites. It is an interesting fact that these findings tally with the artworks they have on their paintings. This is a clear indication that they were really into the human sacrifice practice. The biggest question however is whom they used to sacrifice and why (Sutter and Cortez 521-527).

Judging from the Moche artwork, it would be wrong to assume that the warfare depicted was with non-Moches. Some of the paintings illustrate this war as a ritual. This fact is based on the total number of warriors in combat. They are fewer in regard to conquests, which involve large numbers. The attire the warriors are clad also conform to rituals. They have ornaments on them and the weapons in use are questionable. They are using clubs and they fight at close range. Their war grounds do not indicate any warfare. Controversy is also ignited by the fact that they prefer to capture their ‘enemy’ rather than kill them as synonymous with conquests. These artworks later in the development show the captives being serenaded in front of the Moche supernatural who sacrifice them. This forms a basis for the interpretation that this is a ritual combat (Verano 111-122).

The Moche elite specialized in deer hunting and this gives a sharp similarity to the combat. It is important to note that the captives never returned home and this gives more insight on the archeological discoveries of brutally mutilated bodies. Going back to the combat scenes depicted by the artworks, the ‘war’ seems rehearsed. The fighters seem like they have been paired up and the fact that they use clubs on each other rules out a conquest. To add weight to this interpretation, the artworks do not show any remnant of a destroyed village. From this study, it is important to note that the people involved in battle are elites.

This is supported by the fact that they are in ceremonial regalia that includes elaborate tunics, nose ornaments, and headdresses among other ornaments (Verano 111-122). Common people would not be in a position to adorn them in this manner since they do not have the means. This makes Moche combat an elite affair. During the fight, there is no display of dead warriors and there is absolutely no spearing or dismembering. The opponents are just overpowered and taken captive. They are stripped and tagged with a rope round their necks to the anthropomorphic deities who are elaborately dressed. Hierarchy is represented by the way these captives are carried to the deities. The highly ranked are sat on a stepped seat and those ranked lowly have a rope round their necks. In a normal battle scene, captives are just captives and they are treated equally (Verano 111-122).

The Moche ceramics have a deep tale to tell. Moche people created three-dimensional sculptures of portraits on individuals. This made them great achievers since it was a first in that era. These ceramics served as containers for liquids. Their creation was limited and they were mainly made in the south. These ceramics evolved later to represent their activities which included deer hunting, combat, ritual running and sacrifice of prisoners. Supernatural figures were also represented by these ceramics. Individual portraits were also made to represent every stage of their life. This gives an insight into their history and more importantly on the human sacrifice, which was an integral part of their society (Donnan 127-138).

Human sacrifice was conducted in the most brutal of ways. The captives would be tied to wooden structures out in the open where the vultures fed on them at their pleasure. They would be mutilated by the said supernatural leaders of the Moche community. As if this was not enough, these captives would then be dismembered. The sacrifice ceremony is painted on some of these artworks and they are appalling to say the least. They show a ‘blood harvesting’ ritual where the captured adult males have their throats slit. It is possible that their hearts were removed too. This blood is then passed from one individual to another.

These individuals are composed of both the supernatural and the humans. The bodies of the captives were now buried in tombs at Sipan, Lambayeque Valley (Bourget 89-94). The high priests who conducted these rituals also died at a point and they would be buried in special tombs in this valley. The excavation of these tombs and the vital information relayed by the artworks is a clear indication that human sacrifice was a regular practice. Excavations have also brought to light the fact that most of these rituals were funerary. Whenever a high standing individual died, these rituals were carried out. The sacrificed captives would then be placed on top of the tombs of these elites posing as their guardians. Those who were accorded such treatment included the warrior priest and the individuals buried in Tomb 1 and 2 at Huaca de la Cruz and Sipan respectively. Huaca de la Luna is one of the sites that have witnessed the largest number of human sacrifice. Excavations conducted in 1995 unearthed more than 70 bodies (Bourget 89-94).

Human sacrifice in Moche was highly organized and this is depicted by the procedures they followed. Before they could be buried, the bodies were put somewhere in the open where they would be subjected to sun and wind. While here, they would be attacked by vultures and flies (insect infestation) as per maybe what was stipulated by their rules. These rituals formed an integral part of the Moche way of worship. Going back to the previous theory that depicts human sacrifice more of war fares than a ritual, some authors have suggested that the wars were based on territorial expansion (Bourget 89-94). One author by the name David Wilson attributes these wars to how the Moche people acquired the north coast. He cites iconographic evidence portrayed by the artworks. His findings are however controversial in that the murals and pottery portray totally different evidence as discussed earlier. David would get a benefit of doubt since many wars, whether secular or ritual are marred with ritualistic aspects. Ruling out territorial conflict in favor of religious conflict is therefore a contentious issue. Religious conflicts would have been a necessary evil that would deliver the most wanted captives for sacrifice. Then again, if the warfare were purely territorial, would the Moche people really need to carry out such rituals on the captives? Would it not be more beneficial to them if they killed their enemies in the battlefield? (Bourget 89-94).

On the other hand, further evidence especially that one got from the excavation at Huaca de la Luna gives the territorial war more weight. The bodies excavated here were of young healthy adults between the ages of 15 and 39. The fresh injuries on them are a clear indication that they would have been injured in a violent war. The fact that they were over 70 in number also confirms that this might have been a conquest battle. This could possibly rule out the fist theory that states that Moche sacrificial victims were elite members of society who engaged in ritual combat (Bourget 89-94). Another author, Christopher Donnan states that killing of the opponent was not the ultimate in such battles. He says that the Moche warriors were more inclined to incapacitating them. That could be the reason why they fought them using clubs aiming at hitting them in the legs or face. The presences of birds in these murals also signify a battlefield. Metaphorically, these birds could have been delivering orders from the high rankling individuals who supervised such wars. However, evaluation is inclined on the proposal that Moche sacrificial victims were elite members of society who engaged in ritual combat.  There are many facts that outweigh the other theory that states that those sacrificial victims were captives taken in military conflicts between the Moche and other groups (Bourget 89-94).


Human sacrifice is a dehumanizing practice that characterized the Moche culture. It beats logic why they would want to offer human sacrifices to their gods. The two theories that have been generated by this study stand on their own, each with its justifying reasons. However, it is important to note that the evaluation earns one side more points. Some scholars propose that sacrificial victims were captives taken in military conflicts between the Moche and other groups.  In this evaluation, this has been ruled out. The manner in which the warfare was carried out is far too more ‘friendly’ as compared to a real battle situation. The manner of dress, weaponry used, as well as the manner in which they disposed their weapons leaves no doubt that this was a ritual combat. The weapons were too fragile and once they broke, they were deposited at the foot of the Huaca Cao Viejo wall. This was another ritual. The victims that have been unearthed have not been verified as foreigners. They are more of Moche males who seem to have been specially trained for ritual combat.

Work Cited

Bourget, Steve. Rituals of Sacrifice: Its Practice at Huaca de la Luna and its Representation in

Moche Iconography (pdf). University of Texas Austin and University of East Anglia, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and Americas. Accessed 30 April 2010

Donnan, Christopher. Moche Ceramic Portraits (pdf). University of California, Los Angeles.

            Accessed 30 April 2010

Hirst, Kris. Moche Culture Timeline and Description. The New York Times Company, 2010.

            Web. 2 April 2010 <http://archaeology.about.com/od/mterms/qt/moche.htm>.

Science Daily. New Understanding of Human Sacrifice in Early Peru. Science News, 2005. Web.

3 April 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/08/050826075238.htm>.

Sutter, Richard and Cortez, Rosa. The nature of Moche Human Sacrifice. A Bio-Archeological

            Perspective. Current Anthropology, 46.4 (2005): 521- 549

Verano, John. War and Death in the Moche World:  Osteological Evidence and Visual Discourse

            (pdf). Tulano University. Accessed 30 April, 2010

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