The ancient Moche civilisation in where we now call Peru was a confederation of small states in the ancient Andes. Also known as the Early Chimu or Mochica culture, the Moche civilisation flourished between around 100 to 800 AD, and evolved into one of the most significant groups in Peruvian history.
The civilisation, which spread across the northern coast and valleys of ancient Peru, eventually reached as far as the Huarmey Valley in the south, the Piura Valley in the north and even the Chincha Islands. The power of the civilisation is particularly reflected in their naturalistic and vibrant murals, ceramics and metalwork as well as their large-scale buildings and public works.
So who were the Moche?
They were non-literate
The Moche culture rose and fell well before the Inca. However, as a non-literate society, they left no written records, meaning that early Spanish colonists who chronicled Peru’s ancient cultures discovered the Chimú in what had earlier been Moche territory.
Indeed, in early 20th century Peru, there had been little scientific excavation, and many objects that were taken from graves had no record of their original context. It is therefore based upon research into artworks, ruins and grave goods that researchers have developed an understanding of the culture.
They weren’t a singular culture
The Moche territory was linguistically divided by two similar languages called Muchic and Quingan. Both areas also display differences in artistic and architectural trends, with carbon dating allowing scholars to understand that even similar styles of pottery were made during completely different periods in the separate areas.
Researchers have since hypothesised that the Moche culture was made up of politically independent groups – a kind of loose confederacy – that nonetheless shared a common ideology, religious belief and practice and artistic iconography.
Crucially, they were all agriculturally based societies which relied heavily upon the investment and construction of a sophisticated network of irrigation canals so that river water could reach their crops.
They constructed large and impressive buildings
The capital, known as Moche and giving its name to the civilisation which founded it, was situated at the foot of the Cerro Blanco mountain and once covered some 300 hectares. In addition to urban housing, plazas, storehouses and workshop buildings, the area contained impressive monuments.
In 1899 and 1900, archaeologist Max Uhle was the first to excavate a Moche site, Huaca de la Luna – the Temple of the Moon – situated in the Moche Valley. Pyramid-like and built using some 50 million adobe bricks, it has three tiers and features friezes that depict Moche mythology and rituals. Yet more impressive is the nearby Huaca de la Sol – the Temple of the Sun – which has four tiers, would have stood over 50m high and was constructed using some 140 million bricks.
Both pyramids were constructed in around 450 AD, and would have originally been brightly painted in red, white, yellow and black. They were likely used to perform rituals and ceremonies, while later Spanish conquistadors loot from the tombs suggests that they were also used as mausoleums for important Moche figures.
In 1987, archaeologists discovered the first intact Moche tomb at Sipán (the Huaca Rajada Moche archaeological site). The tomb, which dates to around 300 AD, contained the mummified remains of a high-ranking male, the Lord of Sipán. The tomb was full of treasures made from gold, silver and other valuable materials.
They worshipped different gods
Much information about Moche religion is obscure; however, we know that they worshipped Al Paec, the sky god who is said to have been ferocious, and was frequently offered human sacrifices – often captured enemies – by the Moche people.
Si, the moon goddess, was considered the supreme deity as the controller of storms, seasons, agriculture and daily life, because the moon was visible during both night and day, unlike the sun. Interestingly, a tomb of the priestess known as La Senora de Cao suggests that women were able to play a prominent role in Moche religion and ceremony.
They were famous for their artwork
Moche art was particularly famous, and that which has been recovered from tombs at Sipán, San José de Moro and Huaca Cao Viejo are amongst the best preserved from the burial sites of any Andean culture. As gifted potters and metalworkers, Moche art included stunning gold headdresses and chest plates as well as gold, silver and turquoise jewellery.
Fine pottery was made using moulds, but each was individually decorated, typically using cream, reds and browns. The most famous of these are the highly realistic stirrup-spouted pots, which are considered to be portraits of real people.
More generally, Moche art normally depicted humans, anthropomorphic figures, animals such as snakes, birds, frogs, crabs and fish as well as whole scenes depicting events such as religious ceremonies.
It isn’t known why they disappeared
It is unclear why the Moche disappeared; there is no evidence of a foreign invasion. Instead, the civilisation may have succumbed to earthquakes, prolonged drought, catastrophic flooding arising from El Niño, the encroachment of sand dunes or less recognisable social and cultural factors.
Other evidence suggests that some of the Moche may have survived beyond 650 AD in the Jequetepeque and Moche Valleys. Nonetheless, the little that we know of the Moche today attests to a highly sophisticated and broad culture.