The Moche

The Moche culture lasted from 100 to 800 CE in what is modern-day Peru.


Identify key aspects of Moche life

Key Points

  • The Moche were less of a state or empire and more of a society—they lived in a general geographic area and shared cultural values, but were not governed under a uniform political system.
  • The Moche practiced a number of religious rituals, some of which involved human sacrifice.
  • Moche art appears in a variety of mediums, such as ceramics, architecture, and textiles, and lends insight into their beliefs and culture.

Key Terms

  • Huaca: A large, pyramid-like structure made of adobe bricks and used as a palace, ritual site, temple, and administrative center.
  • vicuña: A wild South American camelid that lives in the high alpine areas of the Andes. It is a relative of the llama, and is now believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas, which are raised for their coats.
  • Moche: A city in modern-day Peru, which is also where the Moche culture was centered.
  • Decapitator: A Moche icon, usually depicted as a spider, and associated with ritual sacrifices and the elements of land, air, and water.

The Moche (also known as the Early Chimú or Mochica) lived in what is modern-day Peru, near Moche and Trujillo. Their civilization lasted from approximately 100 to 800 CE. The Moche shared cultural values and social structures within a distinct geographical region. However, scholars suggest this civilization functioned as individual city-states, sharing similar cultural elite classes, rather than as an empire or a single political system.

The Moche cultural sphere centered around several valleys along the north coast of Peru, and occupied 250 miles of desert coastline that extended up to 50 miles inland. Moche society was agriculturally based, but because of the arid climate, they invested heavily in the construction of a network of irrigation canals. These ornate canals diverted river water to crops across the region. The Moche are also noted for their expansive ceremonial architecture ( huacas ), elaborately painted ceramics, and woven textiles.


Both iconography and the discovery of human skeletons in ritual contexts seem to indicate that human sacrifice played a significant part in Moche religious practices. These rites appear to have involved the elite, both ruling men and women, as key actors in an elaborate spectacle. These rituals included:

  • Costumed participants, including elite priests and priestesses, many of which also ruled the city-states;
  • Monumental settings, including the pyramid-like structures called huacas; and
  • Likely the consumption of human blood and possibly flesh as a part of a renewal ritual.

The Moche may have also held and tortured the victims for several weeks before sacrificing them, with the intent of deliberately drawing blood. The sacrifices may have been associated with rites of ancestral renewal and agricultural fertility.

Moche iconography features a figure, which scholars have nicknamed the “Decapitator” or Ai Apaec. It is frequently depicted as a spider, but sometimes as a winged creature or a sea monster. Together, all three features symbolize land, water, and air. When the body is included, the figure is usually shown with one arm holding a knife and another holding a severed head by the hair. It has also been depicted as “a human figure with a tiger’s mouth and snarling fangs.”

Moche Decapitator: A mural depicting the Decapitator, a central Moche icon of the land, water, and air as well as a figure of death and renewal.


The Huaca del Sol, a pyramidal adobe structure on the Rio Moche, was the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru. Huacas were the centerpieces for ritual sites and used as administrative centers and palaces for Moche culture. However, the Huaca del Sol was partly destroyed when Spanish Conquistadores mined its graves for gold in the 16th century. During the Spanish occupation of Peru in the early 17th century, colonists redirected the waters of the Moche River to run past the base of the Huaca del Sol in order to facilitate the looting of gold artifacts from the temple, which caused massive erosion. In total, approximately two-thirds of the structure has been lost to erosion and such looting. The remaining structure stands at a height of 41 meters (135 feet). Looting and erosion due to El Niño continue to be major concerns to this day

Huaca del Sol: Originally the largest pre-Columbian adobe structure in the Americas, this pyramid was constructed using around 130 million bricks.

The nearby Huaca de la Luna is better preserved. Its interior walls contain many colorful murals with complex iconography. The site has been under professional archaeological excavation since the early 1990s.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background: When this structure was originally completed it would have been covered in brightly painted murals in yellows, blues, reds, and black.


The Moche are well known for their art, especially their naturalistic and articulate ceramics, particularly in the form of stirrup-spout vessels. The ceramics incorporate a wide-ranging subject matter, both in shape and painted decorations, including representations of people, animals, and ritual scenes. They also feature gods hunting, scenes of war, music making, visiting rulers, burying the dead, curing the sick, and anthropomorphic iconography. Moche ceramics illustrate these recurring narrative themes, which help illuminate and define their ideologies in the present day.

Some of the ceramics have become known as “sex-pots”: vessels depicting sexual acts. It is thought that these vessels were used for didactic purposes, and also as articulations of Moche culture. Because irrigation was the source of wealth and foundation of the empire, the Moche culture emphasized the importance of circulation and flow. Sexual themes in the pottery are posited to reflect Moche views of bodily fluids as an essential life force.

The Moche also wove textiles, mostly using wool from vicuñas and alpacas. Although there are few surviving examples of this, descendants of the Moche people have strong weaving traditions.


There are several theories as to what caused the demise of the Moche political structure. Some scholars have emphasized the role of environmental change. Studies of ice cores drilled from glaciers in the Andes reveal climatic events between 536 and 594 CE, possibly a super El Niño, that resulted in thirty years of intense rain and flooding followed by thirty years of drought, part of the aftermath of the climate changes of 535–536. These weather events could have disrupted the Moche way of life and shattered their faith in their religion, which had promised stable weather through sacrifices.

Other evidence demonstrates that these events did not cause the final Moche demise. Moche polities survived beyond 650 in the Jequetepeque Valley and the Moche Valleys. For instance, in the Jequetepeque Valley, later settlements are characterized by fortifications and defensive works. While there is no evidence of a foreign invasion, as many scholars have suggested in the past, the defensive works suggest social unrest, possibly the result of climate change, as factions fought for control over increasingly scarce resources.

The Nazca

The Nazca lived near the southern coast of Peru from 100 BCE to 800 CE.


Explain the culture, religion, agriculture, and decline of the Nazca civilization

Key Points

  • Early Nazca society was made up of local chiefdoms and regional centers of power centered around the ritual site of Cahuachi.
  • The Nazca are known for their Nazca Lines —geometric shapes, lines, and animal figures carved into the desert floor.
  • Like the Moche, the Nazca decline was likely due to environmental changes.

Key Terms

  • Nazca Lines: A series of geometric shapes, miles of lines, and large drawings of animal figures created by the Nazca culture.
  • shamans: Spiritual practitioners that reach altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world for healing and divination purposes.
  • Trephination: This primitive surgery removed a piece of bone from the skull, while the person was still alive, to allow drainage after a head injury.

The Nazca (or Nasca) lived near the arid southern coast of Peru from 100 BCE to 800 CE. Early Nazca society was made up of local chiefdoms and regional centers of power centered around Cahuachi, a non-urban ceremonial site of earthwork mounds and plazas. These pyramid-like structures and plazas, situated in the lower part of the Nazca Valley, served as important spaces for fertility and agricultural rituals. People from across the Nazca region most likely gathered in Cahuachi during specific times of the year to feast and make offerings.

The Nazca developed underground aqueducts, named puquios, to sustain cities and agriculture in this arid climate. Many of them still function today. They also created complex textiles and ceramics reflecting their agricultural and sacrificial traditions.

Society and Religion

Likely related to the arid and extreme nature of the environment, Nazca religious beliefs were based upon agriculture and fertility. Much of Nazca art depicts powerful nature gods, such as the mythical killer whale, the harvesters, the mythical spotted cat, the hummingbird, and the serpentine entity. As in the contemporary Moche culture based in northwest Peru, shamans apparently used hallucinogenic drugs, such as extractions from the San Pedro cactus, to induce visions during ceremonies.

Carving of an orca
Killer whale (Orca): Powerful nature gods were an essential element of the Nazca religious culture, which centered around agriculture.

Nazca Lines

The geoglyphs of Nazca, or “Nazca Lines,” are a series of geometric shapes, extended lines that run for miles, and large drawings of animal figures (some as large as a football field) constructed on the desert floor in the Nazca region. A large number of people over an extended period of time could have constructed the lines.

Researchers have demonstrated techniques to explore how this was done. By extending a rope between two posts and removing the red pebbles on the desert surface along the rope, the lines could have been constructed. The contrast of the red desert pebbles and the lighter earth beneath would make the lines visible from a high altitude. Due to the simplistic construction of the geoglyphs, regular amounts of rainfall would have easily eroded the drawings, but the dry desert environment has preserved the lines for hundreds of years. Several theories have been posited as to why the Nazca Lines exist, but the true meaning of the geoglyphs remains a mystery.

Nazca Lines: These Nazca lines, called The Hummingbird, are representative of the type of structures that remain.

Agriculture and Diet

Nazca subsistence was based largely on agriculture. Iconography on ceramics and excavated remains indicate that the Nazca people had a varied diet, including:

  • Maize
  • Squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Beans
  • Manioc (also known as Yuca)
  • Achira
  • Small amounts of fish
  • Peanuts

They also grew several non-food crops, such as cotton for textiles, coca, San Pedro cactus, and gourds. The latter were decorated to illustrate activities in daily life. The presence of coca is evident in pottery and artwork. The leaves of this plant were chewed and worked as a stimulant that suppressed hunger, pain, thirst, and fatigue. The hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus also appears on several polychrome pots and bowls showcasing its ceremonial significance.

In terms of animal resources, the Nazca made sacrifices of llamas and guinea pigs at Cahuachi. Llamas were also commonly exploited as pack animals, for their wool, and as a source of meat.

San Pedro cactus: This plant, Echinopsis pachanoi, has hallucinogenic properties, which shamans of the Nazca culture utilized in ceremonies.

Trephination and Cranial Manipulation

Trephination was a primitive skull surgery used by the Nazca that relieved pressure on the brain from battle wounds or for ritual purposes. It entails the removal of one or more sections of bone from the skull, while the person is still alive. Evidence of trephination has been seen through the analysis of excavated skulls. Some of the skulls show signs of healing, evidence that some individuals who underwent the procedure survived.

Elongated skulls, as a result of skull manipulation, were also seen in the excavations from Cahuachi. This effect was achieved by binding a cushion to an infant’s forehead and a board to the back of the head. Archaeologists can only speculate as to why this was done to some of the skulls. Several theories suggest skull manipulation created an ethnic identity, formed the individual into a social being, or may have illustrated social status.

Decline of the Nazca

Like the Moche, who lived along the arid northern coast of Peru during the same time period, it is thought that the Nazca may have been forced into decline by environmental changes. This is thought to have occurred when an El Niño triggered widespread and destructive flooding, leaving the civilization unstable by 750 CE. Evidence also suggests that the Nazca people may have exacerbated the effects of these floods by gradually cutting down Prosopis pallida trees to make room for maize and cotton agriculture. These trees play an extremely important role as an ecological keystone of this landscape, in particular preventing river and wind erosion. Gradual removal of trees would have exposed the landscape to the effects of climate perturbations such as El Niño, leading to erosion and leaving irrigation systems high and dry.

The Sicán

The Sicán culture inhabited what is now the north coast of Peru between about 750 and 1375 CE.


Explain the unique aspects of the Sicán and what led to their downfall

Key Points

  • In the Early Sicán period (750–900 CE) the Sicán began to establish trade and commerce.
  • The Middle Sicán period (900–1100 CE) saw an explosion of culture and art, along with the development of extensive trading routes.
  • Environmental changes caused unrest in the Late Sicán period (1100–1375), but the ultimate end to the Sicán came when they were conquered by the Chimú.

Key Terms

  • tumbaga: A thin sheet of low-karat gold alloy, which was used to decorate symbolic metal vessels for lower elites.
  • Sicán Precinct: The religious and cultural center of the Sicán culture.
  • Sicán Deity: The central religious figure of the Middle Sicán period. This entity represented water, the ocean, and natural resources. It was also the social underpinning of the theocratic state.

The Sicán culture inhabited what is now the north coast of Peru between about 750 CE and 1375 CE. They succeeded the Moche culture, but there is still controversy among archeologists and anthropologists over whether the two are separate cultures.

Early Sicán Period

The Early Sicán period began around 750 CE and lasted until 900 CE. The lack of artifacts has limited the development of knowledge about this early period. Based on common themes, the Sicán were probably direct descendants of the Moche and developed their new culture during an unstable time in the region.

From remains found in archaeological locations, researchers have determined that this culture maintained commercial exchange with people from present-day Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile, and the eastern basin of the Marañón River.

The Early Sicán culture is known for the highly polished, black-finish ceramics found in the La Leche Valley. This black-finish ceramic style began in the Moche culture prior to the Early Sicán, and demonstrates the sharing of cultures in the region. Many of the ceramics were examples of a single spout, loop-handle bottle, featuring an anthropomorphic-avian (bird) face at the spout base. The face consisted of bulging eyes, a hooked beak or triangular projection instead of a nose, stylized ears, and no mouth. It appeared to be a predecessor to the related faces of the Sicán Deity and the Sicán Lord of the Middle Sicán culture.

Ceremonial mask: Peru, north coast, La Leche Valley, 900–1100 CE.

Aside from the shared ceramic styles, much of the Early Sicán defines a distinguishable culture. While the ceramic styles and iconography show some continuity with previous cultures, the changing iconography, ceramic themes, and funerary practices reflect a change in religious ideology and cosmology that expressed the Sicán culture.

Most importantly, the late Early Sicán period saw a major organizational and religious shift, by which the Sicán constructed monumental adobe structures, developed large-scale copper alloy smelting and metalworking, and developed the elaborate funerary tradition that would come to characterize the Middle Sicán. Such changes have been noted by researchers at sites in Batan Grande, including the Huaca del Pueblo site, dated to around 850–900 CE.

Middle Sicán Period

The Middle Sicán period lasted from 900 to 1100 CE. This is the period of the Sicán’s “cultural florescence,” and was marked by the emergence of various cultural innovations, some of which were unprecedented in the local area. The Sicán culture had a highly productive economy, clear social differentiation, and an influential religious ideology. This religious ideology served as the underpinning of the social hierarchy of the theocratic state.

The precious metal objects found in Middle Sicán sites reveal the unprecedented scale of their production and use, as well as the class hierarchy inherent in Sicán culture. Metal objects permeated all levels of society. Tumbaga, a thin sheet of low-karat gold alloy, was used to wrap ceramic vessels for the lower elites, while the upper elites had high-karat gold alloys. Common laborers had only arsenical copper objects.

Gold beaker: A 9th—11th century gold beaker exemplary of Middle Sicán art and craftsmanship.

Funerary Practices of the Middle Sicán

Funerary practices at Huaca Loro reflected the social differentiation and hierarchy present in Sicán society. This social stratification is revealed in varying burial types and practices, along with accompanying grave goods. The most obvious difference in burial type based on social hierarchy was that commoners were buried in simple, shallow graves on the peripheries of the monumental mounds while the elite were buried in deep shaft tombs beneath monumental mounds. It was found that one’s social status was also a determinant of the burial position of the body—whether it was seated, extended, or flexed. Bodies of the high elite were always buried in the seated position, while commoners could be buried in a seated, extended, or flexed position.

Social stratification and hierarchy is also evidenced through the variation in quantity and quality of grave goods for different social classes. The elite East Tomb at Huaca Loro contained over a ton of diverse grave goods, over two-thirds of which were objects of arsenical bronze, tumbaga, silver and copper alloys, and high-karat gold alloys. Other grave goods of the elite included:

  • Semi-precious stone objects
  • Amber
  • Feathers
  • Textiles
  • Imported shells (such as conus and spondylus )
  • Shell beads
  • Double spout bottles

All of these items required hours of labor and precious supplies, highlighting the power of the elite. On the other hand, commoners had significantly fewer grave goods of different types, made of less valuable materials. For example, commoner grave goods at Huaca Loro were usually restricted to single-spout bottles, utilitarian plain and/or paddle decorated pottery, and copper-arsenic objects, instead of the precious metal objects of the elite tombs.

Religious Cities and Elite Culture

The Sicán culture was characterized by the establishment of religious cities with monumental temples. The religious capital city and cultural center of the Middle Sicán is referenced as the Sicán Precinct, which is defined by a number of monumental rounds. The pyramidal monumental mounds were used as both burials sites for the elite and places of worship and ritual. The construction of these mounds required considerable material, manpower, and time, indicating the Sicán elite’s control and monopoly over the society’s resources.

None of the metalworking sites showed evidence of on-site mining of any materials. In addition, the spondylus shell, emeralds, feathers, and other minerals were imported to the area. Their materials came from mainly the Northern Andes, but could have also come from as far south as the Tiwanaku lands in the South Central Andes and as far east as the Marañón River, a major Amazon River tributary. The Sicán also could have controlled the transport methods in addition to the goods being traded. The breeding and herding of llamas on the north coast since the time of the Moche could have been utilized by the Sicán to provide caravans of llamas to transport the goods considerable distances.

Late Sicán Period

The Late Sicán period began around 1100 CE and ended with the Chimú conquest of the Lambayeque region around 1375 CE.

Around 1020 CE, a major drought lasting thirty years occurred at Sicán. At the time of the drought, the Sicán Deity, so closely tied to the ocean and water in general, was at the center of Sicán religion, and appeared in most major artistic motifs. The catastrophic changes in weather were thus linked to the Sicán Deity, mainly to the failure of the deity to mediate nature for the Sicán people. The Sicán ceremonies (and mounds on which they were performed) were supposed to ensure that there was an abundance of resources for the people. After thirty years of uncertainty in respect to nature, the temples that were the center of Middle Sicán religion and elite power were burned and abandoned, between 1050 and 1100 CE.

Perhaps the ancestor cult and aggrandizing of the elites caused too much resentment. Coupled with the drought that surely weakened agriculture in the area, the tolerance of the common population plummeted, forcing the removal of the political and religious leadership at Sicán.

Religious mounds at Túcume: The last capital of the Sicán culture was located just south of the La Leche River, where they built twenty-six new religious mounds.

The Sicán then built a new capital at Túcume, also known as Purgatorio by local people today, where they thrived for another 250 years. The Sicán were able to build twenty-six ceremonial mounds in this new capital in that time period. However, in 1375, the Chimú conquered the area, marking the end of the Sicán era.


The Chimú lived in modern-day Peru from 900–1470 CE.


Discuss distinguishing aspects of Chimú religion, craftsmanship, and agriculture

Key Points

  • The Chimú expanded to cover a vast area and include many different ethnic groups along the northern coast of modern-day Peru.
  • Chimú artisans made notable multi-colored textiles and monochromatic pottery and metalwork.
  • In 1470, the Chimú were conquered by the Inca.
  • The Chimú worshipped the Moon as the essential deity of fertility, good weather, and bountiful crops.

Key Terms

  • Chan Chan: The capital of the Chimú culture. It is in modern-day Peru.
  • Chimor: The long swath of land along the northern coast of Peru that was ruled by the Chimú elite.
  • ciudadela: Any one of a number of walled cities in the Chimú capital of Chan Chan where elites consolidated power and artisans lived in organized groups to make prestige goods.

The Chimú were a culture that lasted from approximately 900 CE until 1470 CE along the northern coast of modern-day Peru, centered in the city of Chan Chan. This is not to be confused with the Early Chimú, a related group also known as the Moche that lived in the region until about 800 CE.

The Inca ruler Tupac Inca Yupanqui led a campaign that conquered the Chimú around 1470 CE. This was just fifty years before the arrival of the Spanish in the region. Consequently, Spanish chroniclers were able to record accounts of Chimú culture from individuals who had lived before the Inca conquest. Similarly, archaeological evidence suggests Chimor, the large coastal swath of land inhabited by Chimú culture, grew out of the remnants of Moche culture. Early Chimú ceramics in a high-sheen black, along with detailed and intricate precious metalworking, shared many of the same aspects as Moche craftsmanship.

The mature Chimú culture developed in roughly the same territory where the Moche had existed centuries before, which made the Chimú another coastal culture. It was developed in the Moche Valley south of present-day Lima, northeast of Huarmey, and grew to include central present-day Trujillo, where the bureaucratic and artisanal capital of Chan Chan developed.

The Chimú expansion also incorporated many different ethnic groups, including the Sicán culture, which lasted independently until 1375. At its peak, the Chimú advanced to the limits of the desert coast, to the Jequetepeque Valley in the north, and Carabayallo in the south. Their expansion southward was stopped by the military power of the great valley of Lima.

Agriculture and Bureaucracy

The Chimú expanded and gained power over their 500-year growth through intensive farming techniques and hydraulic works, which joined valleys to form complexes. A few of these landmark agricultural techniques included the following:

  • Huachaques: These sunken farms included the removal of the top layer of earth and allowed farmers to work the moist, sandy soil underneath.
  • Walk-in wells, similar to those of the Nazca, were developed to draw water.
  • Large reservoirs were developed to retain water from river systems in this arid climate where water was an essential resource.

These systematic changes increased the productivity of the land, which multiplied Chimú wealth and likely contributed to the formation of a bureaucratic, hierarchical system.

The Chimú cultivated beans, sweet potatoes, papayas, and cotton with their reservoir and irrigation systems. This focus on large-scale irrigation persisted until the Late Intermediate period. At this point, there was a shift to a more specialized system that focused on importing and redistributing resources from satellite communities. There appears to have been a complex network of sites that provided goods and services for Chimú subsistence.

Many of these satellite areas produced commodities that the Chimú population based in the capital of Chan Chan could not. Some sites relied on marine resources, such as fish and precious shells. However, after the advent of agriculture, more sites developed further inland, where marine resources were harder to attain. These inland communities began raising llamas as a supplemental source of meat, but by the Late Intermediate period and Late Horizon, inland sites started to rely on llamas as an essential transportation and food resource.

Chimú mantle: The Chimú are known for their artisanal works, such as this mantle spun of multiple colored fibers sometime from 1000 to 1476 CE.


The capital of Chan Chan likely developed a complex bureaucracy due to the elite’s controlled access to information. This bureaucratic center imported raw materials from across Chimor, which were then processed into prestige goods by highly skilled artisans. The majority of the citizens in each ciudadela (walled cities in the capital of Chan Chan) were artisans. In the late Chimú, about 12,000 artisans lived and worked in Chan Chan alone. Artisans played an essential role in Chimú culture:

  • They engaged in fishing, agriculture, craft work, and trade.
  • Artisans were forbidden to change their profession, and were grouped in the ciudadela according to their area of specialization.
  • Archeologists have noted a dramatic increase in Chimú craft production over time, and they believe that artisans may have been brought to Chan Chan from other areas taken as a result of Chimú conquest.

Chimú pottery: Chimú pottery is distinctly monochromatic and bears a striking resemblance to Moche pottery.

Pottery and Textiles

Though their textiles were multicolored, their pottery and metalwork are known for being monochromatic. The pottery is often in the shape of a creature, or has a human figure sitting or standing on a cuboid bottle. The shiny black finish of most Chimú pottery was achieved by firing the pottery at high temperatures in a closed kiln, which prevented oxygen from reacting with the clay.


The Chimú worshipped the Moon (Si) and considered it the greatest and most powerful of the deities. It was believed to be more powerful than the Sun, as it appeared by night and day, and was deeply linked with patterns in weather, fertility, and the growth of crops. Sacrifices of spondylus shells and other precious items were made to the Moon. Devotees sacrificed their own children on piles of colored cotton with offerings of fruit and chicha. They believed the sacrificed children, normally around the age of five, would become deified.

Spondylus: Spondylus shells were used as a currency and as offerings to the deities.

Animals and birds were also sacrificed to the Moon in order to appease this powerful entity. Two of the stars of Orion’s Belt were considered to be the emissaries of the Moon. The constellation Fur (the Pleiades) was also used to calculate the year and was believed to watch over the crops.

The Sun was associated with stones called alaec-pong (cacique stone). These stones were believed to be ancestors of the people in the areas they were found. They were also considered to be sons of the Sun deity. Along with the Sun, the Sea (Ni) was also a very important deity, and sacrifices of white maize flour, red ochre, and other precious items were made to it. Prayers for fish and protection against drowning were also offered. Shrines (called huacas) developed in each district across Chimor, dedicated to an associated legend, deity, or cult of belief, depending on the region.

The Fall of the Chimú

The end of the Chimú was brought about in the 1470s. They were conquered by the Inca ruler Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who led a fierce and well organized army northward. The Chimú were considered the last substantial rival culture standing in the way of the Inca conquest of the region.

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Text adapted from Boundless World History. Revisions and additions by History Guild.
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