1,500-year-old ruins shed light on Peru's mysterious Moche people

Story highlights

  • Archaeologists uncovered two ceremonial chambers in Peru
  • Moche people ruled the northern coast of Peru from about 100 to 700 AD
  • The finds show that Moche rituals seen only before on iconography, actually took place

(CNN)A team of archaeologists has uncovered two ceremonial chambers in Peru used by the ancient Moche culture around 1,500 years ago. The find, announced last week, is shedding new light on the political life and rituals of the enigmatic civilization and could help us understand its sudden collapse.

The Moche civilization, which once ruled the northern coast of Peru, was highly sophisticated. They built impressive pyramids that still dominate the landscape today, they developed efficient farming technology, yet they also had a gory tradition of human sacrifice.
The two rooms unearthed at the Huaca Limón de Ucupe monument, an archaeological site in the country's northern Lambayeque region, are thought to have been used by the Moche for political debates and feasts.
    The Huaca Limón de Ucupe archaeological site
    A staircase leads up to one room, the banquet hall, where two thrones face each other, thought to be where a powerful leader would dine with a guest. Murals depicting fish and sea lions decorate the walls, in a naturalistic style contrasting with the supernatural art typically found on Moche ceramics.
    The other room, attached to the banquet hall, has a tall circular podium, which archaeologists say would have been used by the ruler when making announcements.
    "They represent an important step to understanding and reconstructing the function of several architectural elements linked to the use of power protocols in the elites of the Moche culture," Walter Alva, lead archaeologist of the project, told CNN.
    Lead archaeologist, Walter Alva.
    "It was an encouraging and instructive surprise to find archaeology that contributes to the interpretation of the Moche as a technologically advanced society, which is socio-politically very complex," he said.

    The 'master craftsmen'

    The Moche civilization occupied Chicama valley, a desert plain stretching between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, from about 100 to 700 AD. Despite the harsh climate, the Moche flourished, growing corn, beans, and potatoes using an advanced network of irrigation canals, and creating settlements covering more than 350 km of coastline.
    Jeffrey Quilter, a lecturer at Harvard University and a specialist on Moche history, said that the term "master craftsmen," sometimes used to describe the Moche, was well-justified.
    "They were outstanding artists and technicians," he said. "They had highly developed political and religious systems and they mastered the desert environment from within their lush, oasis-like valleys."
    Although the Moche left no written record, vivid artistic depictions on their ceramics and gold work give insight into the society's customs. Some feature animals, plants, rulers and warriors; others famously illustrate a variety of sexual acts. Processions, hunts and sacrifice ceremonies can also be seen on Moche iconography.
    A Moche ceramic.
    Until now, there was no evidence beyond that depicted on ceramics that grand feasts physically took place. "The recent discoveries have allowed us to document and confirm these scenarios, that correlate perfectly with the (ceramic) illustrations," said Alva, director of the Tumbas Reales de Sipán museum, which houses many of the Moche's archaeological treasures.
    Quilter agrees this is a significant breakthrough. "The newly discovered spaces help to provide us with a three-dimensional view of architectural features previously known only through two-dimensional art," he says.
    Another source of information on the Moche people has been their burial sites. Dismembered bodies found buried with marks on neck vertebrae suggesting they had their throats cuts, indicate that the Moche had a tradition of human sacrifice. The sacrifices may have been part of a ritual celebrating the rare occurrence of rain, as skeletons were found deeply encased in mud implying they deliberately took place in wet weather.

    Powerful women

    The discovery of female mummies buried with gold and weaponry has led experts to believe that Moche women may have held political and religious positions. Lady Cao, the name given to a mummy discovered at the ancient archaeological site of El Brujo in 2005, was found with a wealth of objects and elaborate tattoos over her arms and legs, suggesting she was a high-ranking Moche priestess, or even ruler.
    A reconstruction of Lady Cao's skeleton.
    While Quilter encourages caution in interpreting the find, as being buried with symbols of rank and power does not necessarily mean that one had power in life, he says this theory follows the tradition of Andean societies from relatively recent times where "women have had much more autonomy and power than contemporary Western women have had until very recently."
    Yet, the Moche culture is still shrouded in mystery. All the evidence points towards a successful civilization that thrived in the middle of the desert, but its sudden decline around 700 AD has left historians and archaeologists puzzled.
    Some researchers believe a natural disaster such as those caused by El Niño, which continues to periodically cause severe flooding in Peru, led to the Moche's demise.
    Quilter says that though this is possible, "it is just as likely that there was a growing dissatisfaction of people regarding their leaders that made people no longer support the 'system' and so that 'system' changed, much the same as is happening today and has happened at many times and places in the past."