Mask of copper and gold alloy with eyes of shell, found in the Huaca de la Luna, Moche River valley elipsis
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The Moche cultural sphere is centered around several valleys on the north coast of Peru – Lambayeque, Jequetepeque, Chicama, Moche, Virú, Chao, Santa, and Nepena. The Huaca del Sol, a pyramidal adobe structure on the Rio Moche, had been the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru; however, it was partly destroyed when Spanish Conquistadors mined its graves for gold. Fortunately the nearby Huaca de la Luna has remained largely intact – it contains many colorful murals with complex iconography and has been under excavation since the early 1990s. Other major Moche sites include Sipan, Pampa Grande, Loma Negra, Dos Cabezas, Pacatnamu, San Jose de Moro, the El Brujo complex, Mocollope, Cerro Mayal, Galindo, Huancaco, and Panamarca.
Given the unusual emphasis on life-like depictions on the famous elite portrait vases, some have suggested that individuality was an important aspect of Moche political culture. The portrait vases also seem to show the personality of the subject: some are shown laughing, others in deep thought,some with bad acne, others angry, etc. Moche erotic pottery is fascinating, not only due to the vast number of sexual activities represented, but also because procreative coitus was only depicted in a limited number of circumstances when the male involved wore ceremonial garb, the female had two braids which ended in snake's heads, and the copulation occurred under an elaborate roof of a ceremonial building. In these scenes of procreative sex, additional figures are always depicted watching the couple in the building and holding their hands as though in supplication. The precise meaning of this has never been established.
The coloration of Moche pottery is often simple, with yellowish cream and rich red used almost exclusively on elite pieces, with white and black used in only a few pieces. Their adobe buildings have mostly been destroyed by looters and the elements over the last 1300 years, but the huacas that remain show that the coloring of their murals was very vibrant. Unfortunately, little is known about Moche textiles as few examples have survived.
Both iconography and the finds of human skeletons in ritual contexts seems to indicate that human sacrifice played a significant part in Moche religious practices. These rites appear to have involved the elite as key actors in a spectacle of costumed participants, monumental settings and possibly the ritual consumption of blood. While some scholars, such as Christopher Donnan and Izumi Shimada, argue that the sacrificial victims were the losers of ritual battles among local elites, others, like John Verano and Richard Sutter, suggest that the sacrificial victims were warriors captured in territorial battles between the Moche and other nearby societies. Excavations in plazas near Moche huacas have found groups of people sacrificed together and skeletons of young men deliberately excarnated, perhaps for temple displays. The Moche may have also held and tortured the victims for several weeks before sacrificing them, with the intent of deliberately drawing blood. Verano believes that some parts of the victim may have been eaten as well in ritual cannibalism. The sacrifices may have been associated with rites of ancestral renewal and agricultural fertility. Moche iconography features a figure scholars have nicknamed the 'Decapitator', frequently depicted as a spider, but depicted as a winged creature or a sea monster, all three features symbolizing land, water and air. When the body is included, it is usually shown with one arm holding a knife and another holding a severed head by the hair. The 'Decapitator' is thought to have figured prominently in the beliefs surrounding the practice of sacrifice.
There are several theories as to what caused the demise of the Moche political structure. Some scholars have emphasised the role of environmental change. Studies of ice cores drilled from glaciers in the Andes reveal climatic events between 536 to 594 AD, possibly a super El Niño, that resulted in 30 years of intense rain and flooding followed by 30 years of drought, part of the aftermath of the climate changes of 535–536. These weather events could have disrupted the Moche way of life and shattered their faith in their religion, which had promised stable weather through sacrifices.
However, it is clear that these events did not cause the final Moche demise. Recently discovered evidence suggests that the Moche polities survived beyond 650 AD in the Jequetepeque Valley and the Moche Valleys. For instance, in the Jequetepeque Valley, later settlements are characterized by fortifications and defensive works. While there is no evidence of a foreign invasion, as many scholars have suggested in the past (i.e. a Huari invasion), there is some evidence of social unrest, possibly the result of climatic changes as factions fought for control over scarce resources.
Chronologically, the Moche was an Early Intermediate Period culture that was preceded by the Chavín horizon and succeeded by the Huari and Chimú. The Moche co-existed with the Ica-Nazca culture in the south and are thought to have had some limited contact with the Ica-Nazca because they mined guano for fertilizer in Ica-Nazca territory. Moche pottery has been found near Ica, but no Ica-Nasca pottery has been found in Moche territory. The coastal Moche culture also co-existed (or overlapped in time) with the slightly earlier Recuay culture in the highlands. Some Moche iconographic motifs can be traced to Recuay design elements.
Note: Mochica was the Chimuan language spoken in the area when the Conquistadors arrived, but there is no indication that this was the language spoken by the Moche, so archaeologists still call them the Moche after the location of the primary archaeological site. There is some evidence they were the same people as the later culture known as Chimú.
In 2006 perhaps the most lavish (certainly the most valuable, pound-for-pound) Moche artifact ever discovered turned up in a Londoner's office — a magnificent gold mask depicting a sea goddess with beautiful spirals radiating from her stone-inlaid face. It is thought that the artifact was looted from a nobleman's tomb in the late 1980s (La Mina); it has now been returned to Peru.