THE MOCHICAS AND THEIR
"THE HUACOS PORTRAITS"
The Moche nation lived on the northern seaboard of our country and settled in the warm valleys of Piura, Lambayeque and La Libertad, having to struggle against the encroaching desert around them to create arable land. Facing this challenge, in a display of ingeniousness and wisdom, they built enormous canals and aqueducts to take water to the dry areas, thus creating large areas of fertile land. However, this was only a first step in making these lands cultivable, as they later fertilized them with the guano from the bird colonies on the coast and the islands, showing their knowledge of the properties of this substance; it is worth pointing out that their need for guano drove them to create the so-called "caballitos de totora" (one-man reed rafts), that are still made by their descendants, so as to obtain guano from the islands. To complete the equipment they needed for top quality farming, they introduced the use of the "standing plough", thus improving the sowing process.
There were different social strata within Moche society, as shown by the study of its wonderful ceramics, with a possible ranking as follows:
- The first sector was that of Priest - Warriors, entrusted with administering the valleys and directing wars. There was one governor per valley, and a main governor who outranked them in importance. This caste also was in charge of worshiping their gods.
- Then came the Artisans, who produced beautiful ceramics, textiles, and gold and silver jewelry, carrying out a highly prestigious activity.
- The third group was formed by the bulk of the Populace; carrying out agricultural activities, they were obliged to pay tribute to the Priest-Warriors.
- The last place was occupied by the Prisoners of War, who lived as slaves, and could be offered in sacrifice to the gods.
A major part of what we know about this major culture we owe to the study of its fabulous ceramics, since its style is surprisingly realistic and expressive, showing details of the physical appearance of the people; Mochica art is one of the main branches of pre-Hispanic Peruvian ceramic art. In its variety, expressiveness and cultural influence it seems to equal or outdo its Roman and Egyptian counterparts; however, were these really portraits? And, if so, who were the models immortalized by the ceramists?; by examining this immense legacy, we have concluded that the dramatic realism in depiction of facial features was an offshoot of the custom of making "death-masks" of loved ones, which then became part of the funerary ritual; these masks were taken directly from the faces of the corpses shortly after death; this led to the fashion of commemorating a dead person by molding a likeness of his or her face.
Thanks to their variety and expressiveness, the Mochica artworks seem to equal those of Rome and in number they exceed those of Egypt. The range of individuals portrayed was wide, and hardly corresponded to a restricted elite in power. One can distinguish the victims of skin diseases by the ravages produced by them, female faces identified by unmistakable locks of hair and the cadaverous-looking faces of the dead. Besides, the ceramists also depicted animals and supernatural beings including divinities, as well as scenes of daily life.
This feature gives us a hint of the possible motivations of the artisans and also to explain the origin of the unexpected realism in the treatment of human faces with clearly individual physiognomy. Most of the assumed portraits correspond to masculine individuals who carried out ritual functions as officiators of religious ceremonies, showing them handing the blood of their victims to supernatural beings, and also participating in heterosexual orgiastic rites, wearing rattles and bells and bearing standards.
Contrary to what might be assumed, the effigies of dignitaries are extremely rare, and correspond to the supreme priests who, comfortably seated at the top of the pyramids, presided over the ceremonial races and other rituals. Birds, felines or pom-poms ornament their fine turbans. The governors differed from the priests in their warrior clothing and helmet-shaped headdress.
Additionally, there are many faces of individuals with untidy long or short hair, who might have been the victims of sacrifices. The Mochica artisans therefore had no intention of portraying their chiefs, but rather the participants in bloody rituals, who were officiators, victims or vertidos. This coincides with the probable function of the stirrup-shaped bottles as receptacles for ceremonial liquids, and especially blood.
Then, why immortalize the faces of officiators and victims of sacrifices? Apparently, the images were not individual portraits in the western sense, although the artists may have been inspired by real faces, but rather portraits of a generic or typical nature. The facial features depicted as well as the details of the headdress, earrings or nose ring would have served to rank the human beings they depicted within their complex ethnical and political structure.
The Mochica material culture showed an interest in iconographical participation by projecting the image of a multi-ethnical state, held together by shared religious beliefs. The ritual combat in which warriors of different ethnos or districts fought against each other, the exhausting ritual races and the human sacrifices played the double role of propitiatory rites for community welfare, and of initiation rites for young men.
Almost without a doubt, the expressive faces on the Mochica bottles were not intended to commemorate loved ones or honor their governors, but rather to be deposited in the burial sites as a sign that their owner was a member of their society: a full-fledged Mochica with all his or her rights, who therefore periodically assumed certain ritual roles corresponding to kinship and political function.
All of these ceramics may be seen in the different museums exhibiting remains, notably Bruning Museum (Lambayeque), Sipan (Lambayeque), Tucume (Lambayeque), Sican (Lambayeque), Wiese (Trujillo) and Museo de la Nacion (Lima).