History of the Moche People of Peru

The greatest challenge in interpreting South American archaeology lies in the absence of a written record.  In Central America, at least, there are writing systems available.  No such aid exists in the study of South American civilizations; only the archaeological record can shed any light on pre-Inca civilizations.  As a result, any attempt to address the history of the Moche must be tentative and general.

Moche civilization emerged in the northern part of the Peruvian coast.  Moche influence extended only barely into the Andes mountains, which were home to other cultures.  Their lands therefore represented a long but thin slice of land between the ocean and the mountains.  The climate in this territory is very dry, and desert conditions dominate much of it.  The wasteland is broken up, however, by a series of rivers that fan out from the Andes on their way to the Pacific.  With the aid of irrigation, these river valleys could support substantial urban settlements.

The Moche were influenced by still older cultures, most notably by Chavin de Huantar.  The Chavin culture was the first to play a dominant role over the northern part of Peru, and left its mark over all of the cultures that succeeded it.  Chavin arose on the scene early in the first millennium BC, and later developed a powerful degree of cultic prestige that lasted for a couple of centuries.  It collapsed around 200 BC.  It is very possible that Chavin’s hegemony was solely religious, and when the prestige of its cult places declined, there was nothing else to maintain the site’s importance.  If the site lost its broader meaning, however, its influence remained: the deities attested in its cult, the forms of its religious structures and the kinds of ceremonies enacted at those cites would be emulated even to the Inca period.

The fall of Chavin inaugurated a new phase of regional factionalism.  Without the general acceptance of any one settlement as the foremost, each major settlement may have sought to assert itself among its own neighbors, if not on the same scale that Chavin had enjoyed.  As Zach Zorich reports, archaeologists have found the first evidence of organized conflict in the period surrounding Chavin’s fall; some, like Ivan Ghezzi, also argue that this conflict was fundamentally ritualistic in character.  Ghezzi explains that dominance over neighboring populations was far more important than the mere acquisition of land, given the amount of effort needed to make this landscape fruitful.  A successful ritual war could convince the losers that the winners’ influence with the gods was stronger than their own; acceptance of the winners’ dominance would result, at least for a while.

The Moche, who appeared in the archaeological record in the earliest years AD, partook of both traditions.  They are a case study in the fluidity of anthropological reconstructions of bygone cultures.  The archaeological record can preserve many elements of a civilization’s material culture, and the presence of two or three distinctive elements can suffice in defining a given site as that of a known culture.  Rarely can populations be distinguished in the same manner.

At the beginning of this period, a distinctly Moche culture predominated in river valleys that had previously been characterized by the Gallinazo culture; by the ninth century AD, the Moche had vanished from the archaeological record, and new cultures like the Lambayeque occupied their lands.  It would be rash to conclude that these changes were the results of population movements, let alone conquests; it seems more likely that the Moche were the descendants of the Gallinazo, and the ancestors of the Lambayeque.  It was the adoption of certain traits, such as the Moche pattern of ritual warfare and human sacrifice and, more humbly, certain standards of metalwork and ceramic decoration, that defined the culture as a new phenomenon known to us as Moche.  When enough of that tradition had been abandoned, it ceased to be Moche and became Lambayeque.  (See especially Dillehay and Bawden in Pillsbury’s volume.)

However the Moche culture might have developed, it did so in the middle zone (between coast and Andean highlands) of several river valleys of the Gallinazo culture, most notably along the Moche river.  The cult center at Moche, dominated by two massive adobe platforms known today as Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, was an important site for approximately 700 years, and its rulers may have attempted to unify the entire region under their control.  Certainly, the first scholars to study the Moche thought that this goal was successful, and gave the site’s name to the culture itself.

Much has been learned since the 1970s.  The Moche may be the best-attested of all pre-Inca cultures in South America.  It is far more likely that the Moche cities were never united under a single capital, although the center at Moche was fairly successful at imperial expansion, mainly along the coastline to its south.  The Moche centers to the north seem to have acted on their own.  Above all, the discovery of a major elite burial site at Sipan, preserving magnificent burials that spanned nearly the entire Moche period, demonstrated the power of its rulers in a way that makes it quite unlikely that they were merely thralls to an overlord at Moche.

The burials at Sipan also substantiated the images of Moche ritual life presented in line drawings on the sides of surviving ceramics.  These images depict warfare in which defeated warriors are taken alive back to the ceremonial platforms for sacrifice.  The victorious warlords and priestly figures with accessories that suggested supernatural powers then slew the victims and, apparently, drank their blood.  Before the discovery of the tombs at Sipan, it was not known how much of this story was actually performed, and how much was mythological; the figures that we now understand to be priests could have been representations of gods.  In the burials at Sipan, however, it was precisely these mythological images that were shown to be real: the chief priest indeed wore regalia that reflected those images, and similarly, there was a leading priestess who dressed as the priestess figure.

Other discoveries have demonstrated the reality of the sacrificial imagery, from the heavy maces that were used in ritual battles, to the bones of sacrificial victims, even to the discovery that ritual cups had indeed contained human blood.  It is now overwhelmingly likely that the ceramic drawings faithfully represented real activities, and this serves to explain a great deal about the Moche system from its inception until about 700 AD.

It seems that there were two elite groups in Moche society, a martial political leadership and a priestly group.  The warrior group had slightly higher status, not least because of the fact that high-ranking sacrificial victims as well as victors came from this group.  In the absence of a written language, there was no need for an intermediary scribal class; commands would have been passed down by the spoken word.  The common people would have been artisans, notably including metalworkers, weavers and highly-skilled potters, as well as farmers and fishermen.  These commoners seemed to depend upon their leaders to keep the good will of the gods, and thereby ensure that their marginal land would remain fruitful; until the dislocations of the eighth century, the people truly accepted the system.

Around 700 AD, a protracted period of disastrous weather shattered this social contract, and the Moche culture did not long survive the efforts undertaken to adapt.  Believed to be an extreme phase of the El Niño cycle, this phenomenon resulted in years of heavy rainfall followed by another period of higher aridity.  During the early, wet phase of this period, the Moche responded with more numerous sacrifices, but during the dry spell the Moche way of life underwent profound change.

Foreign influences entered the Moche culture on a new scale, bringing practices and ideas from Ecuador and from highland cultures, most notably that of the Wari.  Archaeologists used to believe that the Moche were conquered by the Wari, but based on his work in the site of Galindo on the Moche River, Garth Bawden has argued (see Pillsbury) that Moche elites chose to emulate the Wari as a way of lending new prestige to themselves.  Bawden went on to argue that this ultimately led to the collapse of the Moche system.  Because Wari ideology was foreign, it failed to resonate with the common people of the Moche civilization, and so the support that this effort was meant to generate never materialized.  Instead, the commoners innovated with private ritual in their domestic spheres – the only area of life in which they had any control.  With the Moche elites and commoners pulling in opposite directions, the cultural unity that had characterized Moche civilization for seven centuries was torn asunder.

In its wake, new cultures emerged among the people of the formerly Moche territory, from transitional ones like Lambayeque to new heights of grandeur under the Chimu.


Alva, Walter and Christopher B Donnan, “Royal Tombs of Sipan” 1993

Longhena, Maria and Walter Alva, “The Incas and Other Ancient Andean Civilizations” 2007

Pillsbury, Joanne (ed.), “Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru” 2001, 2005

Von Hagen, Adriana and Craig Morris, “The Cities of the Ancient Andes” 1998

Zorich, Zach, “Fall of a Sacred Fortress: The origins of ritual warfare in ancient Peru” in Archaeology, May/June 2010


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