Science + Technology

Rich Tombs From Moche Culture Uncovered on Peruvian Coast


Three treasure-filled, 1,500-year-old tombs of the ancient Moche culture have been uncovered in a huge pyramid in northern Peru. The discovery, resulting from a three-year excavation, is reported in the March issue of National Geographic magazine.

The unlooted tombs found in the 105-foot-high pyramid are rich with the artistry and culture of the Moche — ceramics, textiles and human sacrifices. "The quality of the ceramics and metalwork is astonishing," said lead archaeologist Christopher B. Donnan, a professor of anthropology at UCLA. Donnan, whose work at the site was supported by the National Geographic Society, has been excavating the remains of Moche culture for 35 years.

"More than 350 Moche burials have been excavated (by archaeologists)," he writes in National Geographic, "but neither I nor my colleagues have seen anything elsewhere remotely like the ones at this site." The newly discovered tombs are on the Peruvian coast, 40 miles south of a site known as Sipan, which Donnan helped unearth in 1988.

The Moche were farmers whose complex civilization flourished in the desert plain between the Andes and the Pacific from about A.D. 100 to 800. They diverted rivers into a network of irrigation canals, growing corn, beans, chili peppers, potatoes and squash. They also dined on ducks, llama, guinea pigs and fish.

A sophisticated culture, the Moche raised huge monuments of sun-dried mud bricks, laying their noblest dead within, and created splendid objects of gold, silver, copper and ceramic. The objects were often decorated with scenes of hunting, fishing, combat, punishment, sexual encounters and elaborate ceremonies.

The new archaeological site, known as Dos Cabezas ("two heads"), is the first big settlement discovered from the Moche I period, the earliest in the Moche culture. The three tombs contain stunning new clues to a society that vanished 1,000 years before the Inca people occupied this region. Among the discoveries:

  • In each of the three tombs, the remains of a remarkably tall adult male — a giant among his peers. Donnan's colleague Alana Cordy-Collins thinks the men may have suffered from a disease similar to Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes thin, elongated bones.
  • A miniature tomb, found just outside each burial chamber, that contains ceramics and a small copper statue apparently meant to represent the tomb's principal occupant. This feature has not been seen before in any culture.
  • Numerous cylindrical headdresses, covered with gilded copper platelets of a style found at no other site.
  • Evidence of a base-10 number system, seen in jars, bricks and beads arranged in sets of five, 10 and 20.

One of the tombs was particularly rich, suggesting that in life its occupant had wielded enormous power. A large copper bowl had been placed upside-down over the dead man's face. Beneath it was an exquisite gold-and-copper funerary mask. Five gold objects were found in the man's mouth. Ornate sculptures of clay, copper and gold lined his tomb, displaying Moche mastery of metallurgy and graphic design.

Images of bats, which appeared often in Moche depictions of human sacrifice and ritual blood drinking, abounded in this tomb. The man was buried with an exquisite ceramic bat, a headdress decorated with gilded copper bats and a bat-nose ornament of solid gold.

His tomb also preserved 18 headdresses and a funerary bundle containing the finest weapons of the day — war clubs, spear-throwers, spears and gold-plated shields.

The dead nobleman was not alone with his riches: Besides the entire body of a llama, the tomb contained the body of a young female attendant, likely sacrificed to accompany him in his final rest.

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