When you get the call, it is difficult to say ‘no’.
“Hey Patty, are you available to disappear for a couple of weeks into Peru?”
“Sure,” I replied. “But we’ve been there already, so why are we going again?”
“We know you’ve already experienced the touristy side of Peru when you went to the Alta Plano, Cuzco, Lima and Macchu Pichu. This time we’re going to Peru’s northern coastal region. We’re going to explore some incredible sites that were once occupied by the ancient and enigmatic lost Moche civilization.”
“I’m in,” was my simple response. But little did I expect to find the profound mysteries that awaited us as we explored the remnants of this extinct people. I am easily nudged into gear when it comes to exploring a strange and fascinating lost old culture, especially when it includes cool treks to an under-the-radar archaeological site.
For the past 14 years, I have enjoyed the honor of traveling the globe with the prestigious Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. Archaeologists are the most practiced group of ancient wanderers available on the planet. In addition to their many insights, knowledge, wisdom and perspective, they have taught me that travel, although geographical in nature, can have another dimension as well – if you are willing to seek it out: time.
Time travel. Ooh, sizzle!
My husband Roger and I are lifelong fans of ancient history, so our hookup with the Cotsen Institute has been a perfect fit. Modern cities around the world have provided us with a vast array of all-inclusive experiences, so our preference of escaping the crowded cities with the big airports to schlepp through the under-populated scruffier landscapes won out.
I had ventured into this particular journey with prior random shards of knowledge about this culture before we left the US. For example, I knew that recent excavations had unearthed the kind of intrigue that seems to permeate into mainstream awareness. This included giant pyramids, richly layered sarcophagus, ritualistic burials that included a sophisticated mummification process, gold, a complex monetary system and lots of human sacrifices to their gods. Their story even included the weather condition that dispelled their population into cultural anonymity: the SUPER-Niño.
[In my mind, I could picture a Moche-based movie, where George Lucas teams up with Steven Spielberg – again – to create an epic movie where a guy with a cool hat and a whip find new adventure in a yet-to-be-known ancient culture. Or perhaps I’ve simply been living in Los Angeles far too long.]
I packed up my camera gear and made room on my laptop for the deluge of photos and notes that would undoubtedly pour forth from me upon arrival to that provocative South American country. I threw in some good hiking shoes and snuck in the Cipro – just in case.
The Moche Civilization: 100 c.e. – 800 c.e.
There once lived a bunch of farmers that were scattered about the area that we now know as Northern Coastal Peru. They grew their food, raised their animals, fished from the local waters and lived an overall happy life. Eventually, they met other farmers with whom they shared similar farming ‘issues’. Their numbers collated into larger groups. These groups developed a social structure that as more people ‘joined up’ the more complex it grew.
They were happy to share their ideology, their philosophies, and mores with other similar surrounding groups. They shared recipes, music and art techniques. All the while, their culture grew more and more complex. They amassed the advanced skills of tool production, pottery-making and decorating, textile production, and gold gilding. They were healthy, they were prosperous, and most of all, they were happy. Their burial rituals guaranteed them an even happier and wealthier existence in the afterlife.
Enter: the evil drought.
After a few hundred years of happy prosperity, the rain began to fizzle into rare trickles. Fruits and vegetables were decreasing in production even as the population increased. Their animals began to die of starvation. Food and fresh water were becoming more difficult to obtain. They felt the need to do something. Anything.
They tried it all. They danced to the gods. They sang to the gods. They built fantastic pyramids that would enable them to climb higher and closer to the gods, to be more easily heard by them. They provided the gods with nourishment via sacrificed goats. They escalated to sacrificing people, as in slaves. They held competitions between warriors where the winners (losers?) would get to be sacrificed to the gods at the top of the pyramids.
And guess what happened: it actually rained.
The Moche people were elated to know that their efforts had not gone unheard. They were happy that the gods had acknowledged their plight and took pity upon them. They continued their chants and dances, but this time with a happier more thankful bent. They cheered, they ate, and they drank in merriment. Once again, their happiness had returned.
The problem was, however, that those prior efforts had been all too successful. The rain continued and continued. The gods disgorged profound amounts of water all throughout the land. The dirt and sand that had been so parched from the drought had become over-saturated to the point that it began to build up and move in the form of mud. Once the mud started to flow, it collected more mud along the way and built itself into walls of mud. These walls then cascaded through the Moche settlements, washing away their crops, their herds, their homes, and even their ritual pyramids. The local beach-front waters became mud-laden and either chased away the edible fish or it killed them altogether.
The poor Moche. Their beautiful complex, wealthy, happy society was devastated. Many died of sickness or starvation. The remainder of their population had no choice but to scatter throughout the land and blend with other cultures. These other cultures formed into groups that later came back to re-occupy the now mud-dried, deserted, but otherwise beautiful ruins of the long-gone Moche people. These new occupants, known as the “Chimu” built their own tributes to God right on top of the old Moche structures, and continued to populate the area with a story that is all their own. And I will happily share their story with you in another story.
But for now, this pictorial should arouse your sense of peregrination (to travel like a long-range bird), and will hopefully have you scurrying to purchase the tickets that will send you traveling back in time yourself.
Click here to go to “Peru: The Moche Journey -part 2“.