A War for the Ancestors: Recreating the Ritual of Human Sacrifice at Huanca de la Luna

September 28, 2002 @ 12:45 pm – 1:45 pm
Gould Theatre
Legion of Honor
100 34th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94121

A Slide Lecture

by Dr. Steve Bourget

Reviewed by Michel Quenon

This year’s Land lecture had a South-American theme presented by noted Andean scholar Dr. Steve Bourget. A specialist in Moche iconography, he has spent several years of archeological research at Huaca de la Luna, a major ceremonial center located on the North Coast of Peru. These activities led to the discovery of a massive sacrificial complex associated with high-status burials.

Ongoing investigations have brought to light a complex of architectural remains decorated with a number of important murals. One of the most intriguing and challenging aspects of Moche culture is their emphasis on human sacrifice and warfare and their system of representations on ceramic and murals.

Using a highly effective and striking PowerPoint presentation (a first for any FEA lecture), Dr. Bourget introduced the audience to various aspects of combat and warfare in Moche culture. Our understanding of these ritual activities comes essentially from scenes painted and modeled on ceramic pottery. After a one-to-one combat, defeat and capture, the vanquished were led to the temple to be sacrificed, eventually.

The uncovering of a large architectural complex, with the remains of more than seventy adult males captured in battle strongly suggests that the rituals depicted in the iconography actually existed. Furthermore, recent DNA research has shown that the victims were closely related to the priest and people who had been buried in the temple or urban area, thus captors and victims belonged to the Moche society.

Using the architectural features and associated murals, Dr. Bourget described a hypothetical journey from the ritual battlefields to the sacrificial grounds deep inside the temple. This journey would have had two components. The first one is physical and details the path taken by victims and captors along ramps, successive platforms and chambers ending at the sacrificial plaza, a journey over five distinct stages.

The second component is metaphysical and is based on the analysis of the murals, artifacts and archeological data from each of the journey’s stages. According to Dr. Bourget, the participants would have been taken from the terrestrial world (the Moche world) down to the bottom of the ocean (the world of the Ancestors and/or deities). Along this journey there are numerous references to archaic themes expressed elsewhere, like at Chavin de Huantar (c.a. 500 B.C.). Another inherent aspect of the ritual and by extension, of Moche religion, is the symbolic duality expressed on the murals, sacrificial site, burials and the Huaca itself.

The world of the living was represented by images of warfare and various birds and other creatures, some mythical. The “spirit” world associated with  the Ancestors/deities was usually represented by  fish and marine birds but no human figures.

At the end of the journey, the murals depicted seventy male individuals between 15 and 39 years of age, some with evidence of old injuries, on the sacrificial plaza. At least five distinct sacrificial rituals could be distinguished, two of these taking place during torrential rains probably brought on by El Niño conditions. Among the skeletal remains are fifty-two clay statuettes, representing nude males, purposely destroyed.

The human sacrifice is depicted at the interface between the world of the Moche and the world of the Ancestors,  between the land and the sea. Hence, the iconographic themes that appear are associated with animals like the sea lions, which are capable of living between land and sea. Perhaps the ultimate goal of the ritual was to restore the land from the devastating effects of an El Niño event.

This exciting and fast-paced lecture ended with an animated questions/answer session..