Dusty hills surrounded by sandy-coloured wheat pastures thriving on the steep mountain face and crisp breezes of high-altitude fresh air in our lungs: an invigorating start on our trip to discover the wonders of the Moche valley.
What a contrast the countryside (‘El campo’) was to the tourist-hotspot that is Trujillo. As we made our way by van out of the main plaza, the lavish Spanish-style churches and colourful colonial houses were quite striking. The northern city’s aesthetics are definitely something to write home about. Superficial beauty aside, Trujillo’s architecture also reveals a great deal about its intricate past. However, it wasn’t the city’s colonial history that we were there to explore.
More interestingly for me, are the various civilisations that, now lost, have left significant and lasting imprints on the region, none more so than the Moche people. We found out that Moche culture survived much longer than that of its more-famous Incan successors.
The Moche Valley itself is the epitome of Peru’s rural countryside: picturesque and remote yet, there was a definite sense of vitality as we drove past the slanted crop fields and flourishing eucalyptus trees. After a scenic drive, we arrived at the mysterious 1500-year old Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon – Huacas Del Sol y de la Luna – not far from the mouth of the Moche River itself.
Stepping expectantly into the Pyramid of the Moon we were plunged into the fascinating world of the Moche way of life; tributes to the feared Aia-Paec deity, and revealing depictions of war, sacrifice, and Moche mythology are painted intricately on the walls: hundreds of years of breath-taking history accumulated in this one temple. It is a site so sacred, that it was the ultimate destination on the arduous journey of Moche pilgrims.
The story doesn’t end there. Even more compelling than their artwork and mythology is what I had discovered about their practices of ritual sacrifice.
The graves of 42 adolescent boys were found in the Moche Valley in 1995, proving that it was custom to sacrifice in mass. It was believed that they used to ‘donate’ the best specimens of society to appease disapproving Gods or improve harvest yield, for example.
However, in more recent years, extraordinary findings in what experts thought they knew about the reasons behind Moche sacrifices have strongly suggested ulterior motives. Motives even more sinister and unveiling.
Our guide confirmed to us that Moche people would maim and hack to pieces the bodies of their enemies, before finally shoving them in burial pits. Additionally, bone studies have shown that many of the remains killed in this way are from distant territories, most likely to be prisoners of war. This is heavily supported by the markings seen in the Moche Valley temples and ceramics discovered in the area, showing the Moches defeating and capturing their foes before slaughtering and displaying them like trophies.
On the other hand, the Moche Valley skeletons which were found to be local to the area, differed greatly in their burial treatment. It was these bodies that were placed in tidy, organised graves with ritual offerings: respectable deaths.
Archaeologist John Verano, a 10-year excavator of the Moche ruins, is convinced that due to the dishonourable way the bodies were buried, some of the 70 sacrifices that have been found in the valley were territorially and conflict-motivated, rather than the occasional offerings once thought. Ceremonious in their brutality, the mass graves of the Moche Valley seem to show bloody and merciless sacrifices rather than the righteous burials of local elites. Verano, whose research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was quoted in a 2013 edition of National Geographic magazine, as saying:
“You don’t deny a proper burial, deflesh, mutilate and turn your elites’ bones into trophies as they did (at Huacas de Moche), you don’t make a drinking mug out of your elite ruler’s skull.”
Of course not.
The most exciting thing is that archaeologists are continually excavating the sites and piecing together new evidence. Our knowledge of these civilisations is constantly evolving. From the agricultural irrigation systems of the Valley, to the mystifying depictions and ceramics left behind at the ‘huacas’, the privilege of getting to know such a rich culture is born from experiencing its sites up close. The Moche Valley is a gem of historical and cultural enlightenment on Peru’s north circuit.
So, whilst the civilisation itself may be considered ‘lost’, the legacy of the Moche is very much alive and kicking (well almost).
Vergano, Dan. ‘New Clues About Human Sacrifices at Ancient Peruvian Temple’. nationalgeographic.com. National Geographic, 19 November 2013. Web.