A mysterious town dominated the north coast of Peru. The little that is known about them is due to the incredible pottery that they left us.They were the Mochicas, one of the oldest civilizations in South America.
The warriors knew that upon arriving in the city, after another conquest, they would be greeted with a party prepared by members of the elite. Decorated with feathers and paintings on the body, they raised their arms, apples made of wood or metal, in which they hung weapons and ornaments of the enemies fought. In front of them, some of the defeated themselves walked, unarmed, naked and tied by the neck by a rope. Upon entering the ceremonial center, the victors were received by the members of the elite, who, hand in hand and using their best adornments, set out along the path traveled by the warriors, dancing for receptions.
The scene appears in a relief mural of Huaca de la Luna, on the north coast of Peru – probably done in commemoration of some victory of the people who lived there on a neighboring ethnic group. They were the Mochicas, one of the oldest civilizations in South America.
This town, which disappeared a thousand years before the Incas dominated the Andean surroundings, left behind few clues of its existence. That is why it is so difficult to determine, in fact, who they were, how they lived and how they disappeared. “The Incas have narratives about the people they have dominated or incorporated, but the Mochicas came so long before they are not in those narratives,” says historian Eduardo Natalino dos Santos, of USP, a specialist in pre-Columbian peoples.
The Peruvian coast is a completely arid place, full of dunes. Thus, it is believed that this people was able to dominate the desert – although things may not have been so difficult.”The Moche river and other rivers in the region have an inflow of constant water from the melting of the Andes, the coast, in terms of fishing and gathering, is one of the richest in the world,” says Santos.
The Mochicas, however, gave their contribution: with a sophisticated system of canals and pipelines, they irrigated the desert so as not to depend on the rain regime. And the sea guarantees the supply of fish and algae, the basis of food.
The Mochicas lived between 100 BC and 600 AD, approximately, when they disappeared or ended up absorbed by other cultures. The first to erect in the region a monumental architecture, with great pyramids.
What we today call Moche was, in reality, a mosaic of autonomous groups that shared traditions. “There was no unified policy, but at least two independent political institutions,”says historian Cristiana Bertazoni, of the Center for Andean and Mesoamerican Studies at USP.
One of them was located in the valleys of Moche and Chicama. The second, in the valleys of Lambayeque and Jequetepeque. All are on the north coast of Peru, but it has been agreed to call the groups of, respectively, Mochicas from the south and from the north.”While those from the north were limited to their traditional area, the others initiated an expansionist policy, mainly towards the south, but both shared political, ceremonial, funerary, artistic and ritual similarities.”
As they had not written, they related the everyday and the mythology in murals and ceramic pieces. The dryness of the desert contributed to the preservation of objects, which allow us to affirm with certainty a few things about the forgotten past of that population. “It was a hierarchical society, of expansionist elites, that made captures, beheadings and wars,” says Santos. “Political networks absorbed other cities, forming large confederations.”
Mochica pottery extends over a fairly wide region. It was commercialized and influenced, exported and copied in other locations. Thus, we know that there was a Mochica expansion, combining commercial exchanges and military actions, which encompassed a large region and then went into decline.
The rulers were considered demigods. When there were ceremonies, the serfs dispersed the mercury sulphate in the soil so that they did not step directly on the ground. Always accompanied by a soldier (who went with him to the grave), the monarch wore a crown, the scepter of power and a golden orange.
The society was extremely hierarchical – the body paintings represented the social status and the clan of the individual. Under the king, there were the priests and then the military leaders, the nobles, the artisans and the fishermen, successively.
A 5 kg wooden scepter, covered with copper, was the main weapon (because of it, skulls abound with deep fractures in local deposits). From childhood, the warriors began in decisive rites for their future. A career marked the arrival of maturity. The winner was incorporated into the personal guard of the ruler.
The ceramics with mochica style was incorporated, among other towns, by the Incas .The most famous are those that reproduce the sexual act and phallic objects, which elicit all kinds of interpretation, such as that the Mochicas celebrated, through art, the miracle of life.
But that is just a suspicion.Sacrifices and purpose The Mochicas practiced human sacrifices. In the rituals, the virgins were thrown into the abyss under the effect of a hallucinogenic cactus known today as”San Pedro”. Prisoners of war were the preferential victims of the decapitator, who is depicted in many vessels and was a demigod.
The sacrifices made by the Mochicas can be explained in a simple way. As it happened in all pre-Hispanic America, they are mechanisms of coercion and power. They served so that the elite guaranteed its hegemony. In the Mochica culture, the rituals were also useful to please the gods and maintain the balance of the world.
Only that the Mochica world began to collapse around the year 500. It was never clear why until 1955, when the archeologist Steve Bourget found in the Huaca de la Luna thousands of bones buried in the mud. He perceived, according to the mud, that sacrifices took place during the rainy season. But the rain, until today, is something rare in the littoral.
The clue to unravel the mystery came from the Andes. Through the observation of glaciers, it was found that the coast suffered, between 560 and 650, an atrocious climate change caused by a phenomenon that until now ravages the American continent: El Niño. They were 30 years of flooding on the coast, followed by 30 years of drought.
And, apparently, another 30 years of civil war under the scarce resources.
Nobody else wanted to be sacrificed, doubting the efficiency of the rituals. The gods gave too much evidence of an anger that seemed never to end. Even a modern society would have succumbed.
1. Ceremonial Invoice ( El Tumi ) The ornate replicas of this artifact are still sold in the region today. They served to behead (these knives were used in decapitation). Part of the blood was collected and drunk
2. NarigueraIt was a common ornament of the elite, made of copper and gold. In the case of the monarchs (to the right), he used to cover part of the face with respect to his divine essence.
3. Jewels The Mochicas were skilled goldsmiths. This earring of an eagle was made of gold, turquoise, coral and pencil-lazúli. Reserved to the members of the elite, the jewels were buried with them.
4. Masters in art Mochica pottery inspired the art of several other peoples, such as the Incas . The climatic conditions helped to preserve part of the objects, such as those we appreciate in the following image.