This July, two other students and I are working with Wagner College anthropology professor Dr. Celeste Marie Gagnon, analyzing human skeletal remains excavated from archaeological sites in the Moche Valley on the north coast of Peru, during the MOCHE Inc. - Wagner College Bioarchaeology Field School.
During the field school, we are learning the human skeleton, how to estimate age-at-death and sex, and how to identify disease and trauma. In addition, we tour local archaeological sites and museums, as well as experience everyday life in coastal Peru.
Today, we visited Huaca de la Luna. Huaca is a term for something that is revered by the Andean peoples. Any spirited being (animal, plant, feature on the landscape, person, even mummy) can technically be a huaca; however, the term most often refers to sacred natural sites. The Huaca de la Luna is a sacred temple, and we had the wonderful opportunity to tour it.
Thanks to Jesus, a friend of our program director Brian and director of monuments in La Libertad for the Ministry of Culture, we got to take a special tour. We had the privilege to take the route that those entering this sacred city would have taken. (The usual tour actually goes backwards.) There was one entrance to the plaza that is outside the great coliseum, and we walked through it. It is in the back of this plaza where one is met with a frieze of startling images.
Along the bottom, you see a chain gang of naked men shackled together by ropes tied around their necks. They are being led by Moche warriors laden with spoils of war, the clothes and weapons of those they are leading. These poor souls are being led to the balcony where they will be sacrificed to the Decapitator, one of the many bloodthirsty gods the Moche worshipped. Their dismembered remains will then be cast into a great pit on the other side of the platform. One of the most interesting and sad aspects of this portion of the frieze is that those who are being taken into the huaca to be sacrificed would have walked in line with the images depicting exactly what was happening to them.
The next level of the frieze depicts dancers. They are dancing on the bones of their enemies. A similar frieze at another Moche site also has this image of dancers; however, there, real human bones were incorporated under the adobe feet for extra emphasis. The dancers are followed by the emblem of a spider. It is said that this represents the poison the human sacrifices were given to render them immobile during torture. The Moche, like a spider, would paralyze their prey before draining their blood. And the blood would be drained. It was drained into a goblet held by the priestess, who in art is represented with snakes in her braids. Then she would hand the blood-filled goblet to the Moche priest, representing the Decapitator, and he would drink it. Morbid. I know.
The last levels of the frieze include fisherman catching fish, being successful after paying their debt to the gods, and two rows of reptilian creatures, but I'm sure the point has sunken in. Violence, Violence, Violence. It is hard to imagine that tens of thousands of people flocked to the huaca to witness these horrors, to absorb the message that the Moche leaders wished to send, one of brutality, fear, nonnegotiable submission.
It was haunting and humbling to stand among ruins that date back to the Moche Era (100 AD-700 AD). It forces one to wonder what American (United States) culture will look like a thousand years from now. Our skyscrapers certainly will not pass the test of time as well as the Moche's adobe bricks have, and perhaps our gruesome films and small-minded politics will seem just as outlandish to future onlookers as the Moche's sacrificial practices do to me.