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Moche Politics, Religion, And Warfare

Moche Politics, Religion, And Warfare

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Published by Sergio Mota

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Published by: Sergio Mota on Mar 18, 2013
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 Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 16, No. 2, June 2002
Moche Politics, Religion, and Warfare
Jeffrey Quilter
 InthisessayIbrieflyreviewthehistoryofMochestudies,theessentialfeaturesof this archaeological culture of the North Coast of Peru (ca. 1900–1100
 ),anditsgeneraleconomy.Ithenpresentcurrentissues,discussions,anddebateson Moche regional political organization, religion, warfare, and their interre-lations. I suggest that the interpretation of Moche art has been undertheorizedand the interpretation of archaeology has lacked nuance. I question the pro- posal of warfare as “ritual,” that the temple mound complexes were centers of  political power, that the elite buried in them were rulers, that the compoundsandstreetsnearthemwerecities,andwhetherproposalsforaconquestMoche state are plausible. I suggest that these and other interpretations about theMoche are becoming accepted as facts without considering alternative inter- pretationsofthedataandthatmuchinformationislacking.Ratherthanhavingreached a stage when we can synthesize concepts about Moche culture we areonly just beginning to understand it.
Andes; Moche; politics; religion; warfare.
From many perspectives, the Moche resemble the Maya. Like Mayastudies, Moche research boasts a venerable historiography, having attractedsome of the most energetic and creative national and foreign scholars to theancient relics of Peru’s North Coast. Like the Maya, Moche material cultureis distinct and attractive to Western eyes and tastes, eliciting terms such as“classic” and “florescent.” Moche and Maya architecture and portable ob- jects are compelling to art historians, archaeologists, and laypeople in ways
Pre-Columbian Studies, Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. N.W., Washington, District of Columbia 20007–2961; e-mail: quilterj@doaks.org.
2002 Plenum Publishing Corporation
146 Quilter
that the arts of other cultures are not, and much research has been donethrough studies of objects lacking precise archaeological provenance. Mayaart emphasizes line and “realism” as does Moche art, often portraying hu-man figures arrayed in fancy warrior dress or priestly costumes. As the sum-mits of Maya pyramids protrude above the tropical forest canopy, Mochemounds sweep up from the river valley plains (Fig. 1). For both cultures,temple complexes were central places of ancient life and focal points for ar-chaeological research. Both Maya and Moche had short roots connected to“Mother Cultures”: the Olmec and Chav´ ın/Cupisnique, respectively. Bothflowered, developed distinct ways of life within their cultural universes, andthen rapidly transformed within a century of each other. Both transforma-tions have been viewed as “collapses” by archaeologists.The current state of Moche studies resembles Maya archaeology inthe early 1970s. After decades of investigations, as the twentieth centurysped towards its last quarter, Maya scholars began to address questions of politics, society, and ideology with considerable success as measured in agrowing consensus among many investigators on key topics. The reasonsfor this progress lay in a convergence of vectors in both nonacademic andacademic realms. Chief among the latter was the growing success in thedecipherment of hieroglyphic texts. As but one example, the identificationof place names provided the opportunity to define alliances between peerpolities and allegiances between subordinate and dominant centers evenwhenrelativelycompletetextreadingscouldnotbedone(e.g.Marcus,1976).In the last 15 years similar accelerations in the gathering of data and thedevelopment of explanatory models have occurred for the Moche.Whatever analogies may be drawn between the Moche and the Maya,the opportunity for a prehistoric culture to be transformed into an historiconewillalwayseludetheMoche,atleastinthestrictsenseof“historic.Thisdebit may be turned into an asset, however, for the Moche provide a testcase for the power of archaeological interpretation to illuminate the societalstructures and cultural dynamics of an ancient civilization. What can we sayabout a society when we have no texts for it and when it is separated fromthe closest written sources by seven centuries? The answer to that question,by most anthropologically trained archaeologists, always has been, “Quite alot!” It is a challenge to the field, however, to demonstrate what “a lot” is.The exponential growth in Moche field archaeology began after the1987 discovery and excavation of the Sip´ an tombs. Currently, the NorthCoast of Peru hosts many field projects, great and small, as well as ongoinglaboratory analyses of previous studies at an order of engagement probablyhigher than any other region in Latin America except for the Maya realm. Itthus might be an inopportune time to attempt to write a summary article onthe state of Moche studies. It may take more than a decade, however, before
Moche Politics, Religion, and Warfare 147Fig. 1.
Map of the North Coast of Peru, with major Moche sites shown. Mountain iconsrepresent general highlands and not specific peaks. Floodplain/irrigation land shown asshaded near river mouths.

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